Higher Education and Inclusion of Refugees

Special Focus : Opportunity and Resilience in the Face of Displacement
Higher Education November 16, 2016

Globally, refugees constitute vulnerable groups since their migration is forced and since they are in need of protection. Their future status in terms of residence, citizenship, permits and visa is often in a situation of limbo for long periods of time. Refugees and asylum-seekers also live lives in a sort of a vacuum, where the day-to-day situation is one of waiting, frustration and desperation. They constitute a group that often is in lack of education and other needs. 

Refugees rarely have access to higher education, regardless of whether they have previously been university students or not. This is a waste of human capital and a waste of the possibilities of individuals to improve their own lives as well as to contribute to host and home societies a like.

Many of the individuals fleeing the war of for example Syria are scholars, academics, students, or young people in the age of becoming students. Those are people that constitute the next generation, they constitute a resource of human capital. They are young, ambitious, motivated and compose the hope for Syria‘s future. In addition, they can contribute to provide competence and skills to European societies, with ageing populations and where there in many societal sectors exists a lack of skilled labour.

Higher education can provide a tool for future labour opportunities, for developing knowledge, skills and competence. Higher education is therefore an instrument for long-term and future inclusion and integration. Institutions of higher education throughout Europe have also shown a high level of commitment and willingness to take a responsibility and facilitate access to higher education for refugees. Yet, policy-making is lagging and rules and regulations make the process of entering universities slow and rocky for refugees. Rules and regulations vary between European countries. There are however some issues and problems that are similar for refugees aspiring for university studies, regardless of host country. 

Here are some suggestions of what could be done in order to improve opportunities for higher education for refugees all over the world.

  • Increased possibilities for scholarships for refugees in order to be able to finance higher education in countries where there is a cost included. Such scholarship programs could be specifically designed so as to target refugees and other vulnerable groups.
  • Increased investment in capacity building in countries that are hosts to large number of refugees. The absolute majority of refugees is hosted by low-income countries, where there is also a low or pressured capacity in higher education. As a long term strategic development investment, donors should increase capacity building in research and higher education.
  • Host states and governments in Europe should provide for preparatory courses for potential refugee students. Such preparatory courses could involve development of language skills (language is often a barrier), skills in study technique, methodological issues and theoretical/analytical reflection in order to make up for potential gaps between previous education and higher education in Europe. In countries where universities cannot build such educational programs, due to regulatory hinders; those laws and regulations should be looked over.
  • Higher education institutions in Europe should develop basic education also in English (when this is not in place). A hinder for refugees to take on higher education is often the language factor, and in for example Sweden, a newly arrived individual would need both English and Swedish to be eligible for applying to university studies.
  • Higher education institutions should improve their information and communication about the content of higher education, the various possibilities that exist within that particular university or college as well as the requirements for eligibility and selection of students. Often, rules are complicated, and often they are developed in a specific nation-state context without due consideration to the hetereogenity of student groups that is now the case.
  • Validation tools should be developed that make it possible to assess a person’s knowledge rather than the formal education.
  • We should all focus on people’s real competence rather than lack of competence.

There are many challenges ahead, but higher education is an important tool for long-term development of war-torn societies, as well as for development of Western societies. To invest in higher education for refugees is therefore to make investments in peace, stability and development of countries from which refugees flee; in continuous development of growth and welfare in hosting societies in the West and in the possibilities of inclusion and integration in host societies for individuals. Higher education institutes can take a responsibility, but policy-making needs to occur more rapidly.