The Refugee Crisis and Higher Education: Access Is One Issue. Credentials Are Another.

The Syrian civil war, now in its sixth year, has resulted in a mass exodus of Syrians from their homeland – an event now routinely referred to as “one of the largest forced migrations of people since World War Two.” Since the start of the conflict, an estimated, 4.81 million [1]1 [2] Syrians have registered as refugees in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and North Africa. Another 1.17 million have applied for asylum in Europe.2 [3] The outbound flow of Syrian refugees has contributed significantly to a broader global trend that, as of the latest figures [4] from the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), counted some 65.3 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide. (The figures, reported almost a year ago, are due to be updated soon and will almost certainly rise.)

The issue of Syrian refugees in particular has crystallized international concerns [5] about what happens when an entire generation of a nation’s young people is denied access to higher education. Like their global peers, Syrian refugees come from every age group and walk of life. Many are of university or near university age; and many are university qualified. In 2015, the Institute of International Education (IIE) estimated, based on the pre-war gross enrollment ratio, that 450,000 [6] university-aged Syrian students were refugees. Of these, some 150,000 [7], were, as of the spring of 2016, believed to be qualified for university admission. (The count of university-ready Syrian refugees has fluctuated widely in the last 12 months.) As of last March, fewer than six percent [8] had reportedly found placements. Among all refugee populations combined, the challenge of refugee access to higher education is even more profound: In September the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that just one percent of higher-education-aged refugees [9] attend university, as compared to 34 percent of all higher-education-aged youth globally.

This low access rate persists, despite significant efforts to address the issue. Organizations around the world [10] have sought to step up to help fill the gap between need for higher education for so-called “fragile contexts [11]” and institutional capacity, and many have done an amazing job. So the problem is not will to help; it’s capacity.

But the clock is ticking, and students fall farther and farther behind, running the risk of becoming a lost generation [12], who, through no fault of their own, are denied the ability to earn the educational qualifications [13] that will enable them to effectively integrate into their new homelands [14], or, just as importantly, to rebuild their own country [15] when peace finally arrives. The global higher education community needs solutions that can help to fast track students’ access to high-quality education and valid, widely recognized credentials. As of now, two paths look promising. One is technical, and the other painstakingly human.

The Technical Solution: Distance Education

Early in 2012, UNHCR laid out its Education Strategy 2012-2016 [16]. The overall goal is to “support UNHCR’s priority on access to quality education for refugees.” Where possible, the strategy lays out a topline goal of integrating “refugee learners within national [education] systems.” However, where such integration is “not possible, “UNHCR will support refugees to access quality, certified education,” specifically via distance learning, also commonly framed as digital or technically enabled learning, or even massive open online courses, a.k.a., MOOCs.

The UN strategy, which specifically addresses increased access to higher education as a sub-goal, lays out a rosy vision for the potential of distance education to help close the gap between the need for higher education and its availability. “Information Communication Technology (ICT) provides possibilities for vastly expanding the reach of open and distance tertiary education opportunities to refugees,” it notes, through “[p]rovision of opportunities to access certified higher education courses through open and distance learning.”

Implementation of those goals has, perhaps predictably, been stop and start. In 2014, UNHCR held a roundtable [17] event in Kenya to further evaluate the possibilities of what it now called “connected learning” and to formally establish partnerships with organizations including Jesuit Commons Higher Education at the Margins [18], Australian Catholic University [19], the African Virtual University [20], InZone [21], the Borderless Higher Education for Refugee Project [22], and the Swiss Humanitarian Organization [23]. Among the hurdles partners identified were:

Still, the potential for scale and quality are there. In 2012, Barbara Moser-Mercer, a cognitive psychologist and director of InZone, a center at the University of Geneva that develops innovative approaches to multilingual communication and higher education in communities affected by conflict, ran a pilot involving blended (e.g., both classroom and digital) delivery of a university-level course to two refugees living in a Kenyan camp.3 [24] The course included “a short initial period of several days of face-to-face training in the field, followed by several months of on-line learning.” Although limited in scope, the pilot had positive results. Both learners completed the coursework, both performed well on assessments, and both shared what they learned with interested peers in the camp where they lived. However, in her assessment of the pilot, Moser-Mercer sounds a clear caution for the field:

During the debriefing, … both refugees clearly indicated that having a reliable support/mentoring system was decisive for their motivation to complete the course. Constructing such support systems was considered an essential ingredient to rendering MOOC-style courses accessible for refugee learners. Clearly, having thousands sign up for a course and accepting drop-out rates of up to 90% and more, would not represent an ethically acceptable practice in a humanitarian context. Relying solely on the ingenuity of learners, as appears to be common practice with MOOCs that are not framed by a socio-constructive pedagogical model, is clearly not in keeping with responsible education in emergencies.4 [3]

Still, in terms of scale, she and other remain optimistic about the promise offered by MOOCs and other connected learning technologies. “Taken together,” Moser-Mercer wrote in a piece for Al-Fanar Media earlier this year [25], “online universities and NGOs and, to a lesser extent, by traditional universities or university consortia active in distance education… estimate that 10,000 to 15,000 refugees are enrolled in online higher education.

“This number,” she continues, “probably surpasses the number of scholarships awarded to refugees annually.”

Other organizations have tailored their digital efforts at for Syrian refugees. For instance:

This focus on accreditation is critical, and it remains an open question whether digital platforms can address the need. As Moser-Mercer notes, “Refugees require real academic credentials… [and][i]t is too early to judge whether digital learning initiatives for refugees can indeed pass that test.

“The majority of refugee learners,” she continues, “need recognized academic credits that will be building blocks to their future. Digital learning should rise to meet that need. There is indeed value in good digital learning that takes into account the specific fragility of learners and the context in which such learning takes place. But the promise of recognized academic degrees, including recognition by education ministries in the Arab world of degrees earned digitally, must be backed by evidence.”

The Brick and Mortar Solution: What Higher Education Institutions Can Do Today

Infographic outlining six steps for credential assessment for refugees and displaced people [30]This question of authentic credentials is one that universities the world over are well positioned to address. In an op-ed for the Brookings Institution earlier this year [7], IIE president and CEO Allan Goodman, notes that, “[if] the more than 20,000 higher education institutions worldwide should each offer to take in at least one displaced student and rescue one scholar,” it would make a real “dent in preventing a global lost generation.” Furthermore, the authenticity of successful students’ credentials would be beyond approach.

However, there’s a catch: Credentials, a rare commodity among people forced to flee their homes over night, are a prerequisite for admission to higher education institutions around the world. This is where the human solution comes in. Institutional admission processes tend to be bureaucratic in the extreme. Doing the legwork involved in processing applications from refugees, who often flee home with either no documents or very partial ones, is, by contrast, time consuming. Still, the effort can be systematized, streamlined, and made consistent. And there is precedent to lean on. In fact, WES earlier this year outlined a six step process for alternative credential assessment [13] in an academic or professional environment. These recommendations, based on extensive research into best-practices for alternative credential recognition around the world, include:

Labor intensive though this work is, universities can normalize the process by creating and documenting modified policies and procedures for refugee students. These enable admissions personnel to develop a consistent approach to addressing the highly individualized needs of individual applicants from Syria and other regions.

As with distance learning, progress on the admissions front is being made on campuses the world over. Especially over the course of the last year, significant numbers of higher education institutions have begun to process and admit refugee students. The European Universities Association has created a dynamic “Refugees Welcome Map [10]” that, as of late November 2016, listed some 203 higher education institutions in 27 countries worldwide that support refugee students, researchers, and academic staff. The IIE Syrian Consortium for Higher Education in Crisis [31], which seeks to place Syrian students and scholars at campuses around the world, likewise lists some 67 member institutions, many of them American.5 [24] More have begun to investigate ways forward.

The case study in developing a developing a systematic response to refugee admissions and support services that addresses the full range of issues from language skills, to funding, and more, is Germany. In 2015, the German government reportedly received [32] 160,000 Syrian applications for asylum, more than half from adults reportedly holding Syrian high school or university diplomas [32]. In response, notes Al-Fanar Media, Germany’s government in 2016 launched an initiative to integrate” 2,400 student-refugees annually into German universities. Schools have also set aside funds for preparatory courses for promising students” and begun offering some required standardized tests in Arabic as well as German and English. Higher education institutions closer to Syria have also sought to widen access to higher education for refugees to as many people as possible. Key countries involved in this effort include Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, each of which has calculated potential enrollments in the thousands.

The Refugee Crisis & Access to Education in Germany

In terms of total numbers of refugees, no other country in the European Union has been impacted as much by the current refugee crisis as Germany. According to the interior ministry, in 2015 the country took in 890,000 refugees and received 476,649 formal applications for political asylum – the highest annual number of applications in the history of the Federal Republic. In 2016, the total number of refugees will be much smaller but may still reach up to 300,000, most of them from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Integrating such large numbers of migrants is a challenge for any society. The German government recognizes that access to education is vital for successful integration, especially since more than half of the current asylum seekers are below the age of 25. Approximately 325,000 school-aged migrant children between the ages of 6 and 18 are said to have entered Germany in 2014 and 2015. The German states in 2015 estimated that effective schooling of these children would require the recruitment of 20,000 additional teachers at a cost of €2.3 billion (USD $2.53 billion) annually [33]. In higher education, €100 million (USD $110 million) have been allocated [34] over the next four years to facilitate entry into study programs. The funds are used to ramp up financial aid, staffing in academic advising and public information campaigns, as well as expand the number of available language courses and seats in academic prep courses. The standard academic aptitude test for foreign students (TestAS) is now free for refugees and increasingly offered in Arabic. Since many refugees arrive without academic documents, the test can assist university admission, although gaining entry into a degree program often remains difficult due to language barriers and bureaucratic obstacles.

– Stefan Trines, Research Editor, World Education News & Reviews

The bad news, of course, is that globally, nationalism is on the rise [35]. Immigration requirements for refugees and others are shifting. But the call to the global higher education community has never been more clear. New numbers on displaced persons and refugees are due to be published later this month; they will undoubtedly be higher than ever, as will the urgency to find, and act on higher education solutions that are scalable, high quality, flexible, and pragmatic.

1. [36] http://inzone.unige.ch/Media-Upload_Xvc78HxeZ34xv/Kcfinder/files/MOOCs%20in%20Fragile%20Contexts.pdf [37]

2. [38] Research shows that an estimated 90 percent of students fail to complete courses in a MOOC setting. Inside Higher Ed explored the topic in 2013, in an article entitled “Measuring the MOOC Dropout Rate [39].”

3. [40] Data retrieved from IIE Syrian Consortium for Higher Education in Crisis [31] November 30, 2016.

4. [36] Most recent estimate retrieved from http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/regional.php [1] November 29, 2016.

5. [38] Most recent estimate retrieved from http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/regional.php [1] November 29, 2016.