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Education pathways

Are you a refugee looking for a way to study at university?

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Complementary education pathways are safe and regulated admission avenues by which refugees can move to a third country to study while meeting their international protection needs.

Developed by civil society, universities and government actors, these opportunities can provide refugees with the required skills to support themselves and reach sustainable and durable solutions.

Complementary education pathways in UNHCR education strategy

In 2023, 7% of refugees had access to higher education compared to only 5% in 2020, while the global average of higher education enrolment among non-refugees stands at 42%. 

UNHCR’s 2019 education strategy, Refugee Education 2030, aims to create the conditions, partnerships, collaboration, and approaches that allow 15% of young refugees to access inclusive and equitable quality education, including post-secondary education, by 2030. The goals of the 15by30 Strategy include work on specific pillars, including the one aiming to enhance refugees’ access to solutions through complementary education pathways.

By providing young refugees with opportunities to pursue higher education studies, complementary education pathways are crucial to making progress towards this goal, thereby contributing to achieving the goals of the Three-Year Strategy promoting refugees’ access to solutions through education pathways, amongst others.

What are complementary education pathways?

Complementary education pathways are higher education opportunities through which refugees are admitted to a third country, i.e., a country other than their country of origin and the first country in which they have sought protection. Access of the refugees to these opportunities is based on their education and language skills as opposed to their protection needs. Education opportunities offered through such pathways should allow for a long-term solution through a regular migration system or asylum system in the new country instead of short-term study and scholarship programmes.   

These opportunities contribute to refugees’ economic and social empowerment while increasing their agency and self-reliance.  

At the same time, they benefit host communities and institutions with a more prosperous academic environment, enhanced social cohesion, and improved academic infrastructure and resources. 

Third country education programmes may be part of traditional immigration systems adapted to facilitate the admission of refugees with requisite skillsets on different levels. For programmes of this type to be sustained, it is essential to ensure proper travel documentation for legal entry and stay arrangements. Relevant protection safeguards throughout and following the study duration and subsequent access to information on access to a durable solution are equally important. 

Challenges and opportunities

Numerous factors pose barriers to refugee access to tertiary education. While trying to escape conflict, many refugees lose access to the documentation proving their qualifications and prior learning. In some cases, the countries where they wish to pursue their studies may not formally recognise their qualifications. At the same time, higher education often demands advanced language skills; refugees may need months or even years to master the required language level. In addition to this, high University fees may hamper many refugees from achieving their education goals. 

Access to higher education, though, is life-changing. It can transform the lives of refugees by opening new horizons and creating great opportunities. Refugees need access to higher education to become the leaders of tomorrow and help build a sustainable future for all. By providing opportunities for displaced persons, Universities and other academic institutions remain true to their values and mission. At the same time, refugee students bring with them a wealth of skills, knowledge and experiences that can enrich University classrooms with a diversity of perspectives. 

Global Task Force on Third Country Education Pathways

The Global Task Force on Third Country Education Pathways was launched in May 2020 to promote and support the expansion of higher education as a complementary pathway for refugee students. 

UNHCR is one of over 20 members of the Task Force along with representatives of states, regional and international bodies, the private sector, NGOs, refugee representatives, other UN agencies and donors engaged in or supporting youth refugees in their path towards higher education.

Are you an institution offering scholarships and study opportunities to refugees? 
"People think of me as a student and not a refugee"
After fleeing from Syria due to conflict, Amera and Eias sought refuge in Lebanon and Jordan. To pursue their education dreams, they moved to Toulouse, France, thanks to scholarships awarded by the council of the Occitanie / Pyrénées-Méditerranée region.
"We hope in the future many other refugees will get this kind of chance"
Middle-distance runners from the Refugee Olympic Team, Rose Nathike Lokonyen, Paulo Amotun Lokoro and James Nyang Chiengjiek from South Sudan will be moving to Canada for studies under a new "athletic pathway".