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Lessons On Providing Higher Education To Refugees

LONDON—The authors of a recent report devoted a year to evaluating higher education programs for refugees. In their report, they take care to include the perspective of refugee students themselves, an obvious but often overlooked viewpoint.

The aim of the paper, “Higher Education for Refugees in Low Resource Environments,” which was commissioned by the Refugee Support Network, a U.K.-based nonprofit organization, is to help inform how pedagogy should be changed to place marginalized populations at the center of higher education.

While it confirms much of what was already suspected to be hampering educational efforts—such as limited Internet access—it offers a methodical approach for those looking to improve programs.

“The report gives us more confidence and will help us on a variety of levels to deliver our services,” says Christa Bathany, a volunteer at Jesuit Worldwide Learning, which provides educational programs to refugees around the world. Jesuit Worldwide Learning runs some of the programs included in the report.

Investigators made eight field visits to oversee 15 higher education programs for refugees in seven countries across South East Asia, Africa and the Middle East (specifically, Jordan and Lebanon).

The research report is also accompanied by a separate “landscape review” paper, which provides an outline of the programs currently offering higher education to refugees.

During the site visits, a total of 62 focus groups and 10 individual interviews were carried out with students, along with additional assessment criteria. Program staff were also included with 11 focus groups and 38 individual interviews.

Time after time, students spoke about how they enjoyed and benefited from online learning that connected them with other refugees around the world. Three quarters of students interviewed spoke about the advantages of building these connections.

Some said it helped to decrease feelings of isolation. “It gives us the chance to share the experience of our reality here as refugees. And we can use Blackboard [course management software] to talk with people in similar situations in other refugee camps who are also studying the course,” said a refugee student in Malawi.

Other students said that interacting with other refugees had increased their awareness of the challenges being faced by other people, which had a therapeutic effect. “I am less stressed, less traumatized—I feel like I am attached to the whole world,” said one of the students in Kenya.

Despite the students expressing the advantages of Internet technology in their learning, a great many said their access is far from perfect.

Just 8 percent of those included in the report said they never have problems with Internet access, while 37 percent said they have a problem every day and 29 percent said they have a problem about once a week. The interrupted connections frustrate the students as they say lack of access frequently prevents them from meeting deadlines. “If you’re doing an assignment and want to submit, but you lose the network connection that can be a challenge,” said one student in Central Africa. “You miss the deadline.”

More than a third of students consider dropping out either often or sometimes, according to the report. The biggest factor contributing to dropouts is a tension between meeting deadlines and ensuring that reading and other extra work is also completed, the students said. Making sure that students are able to balance their education with family duties is important, the report said.  

The frequency with which the students relocated was also cited in the report as a significant contributing factor to dropouts. Relocation is particularly a problem among Arab refugees; the most frequently relocated refugees are Iraqis and Syrians in Jordan.

The report says one of the best ways to decrease dropout rates is to have a network of people on the ground—not necessarily teachers—who can reach out to students who have missed classes and offer informal advice to encourage them to persevere. Help with transport and accommodation costs is also effective.

Approximately 7.2 million refugee teenagers complete a secondary education, but fewer than 200,000 are accessing a university-level education, according to figures from the United Nations.

Along with the need to increase the reach of higher education among refugees, the report recommends making sure the most vulnerable refugees are not left out.  

“An over-emphasis on cost-per-beneficiary models leads programs away from focusing on the most marginalised amongst refugee prospective students,” warns the report. It therefore recommends that organizations deliberately target women, the disabled, and religious or ethnic minorities.

“In many ways the human side is lost when you only talk in numbers,” says Bathany of Jesuit Worldwide Learning. “We’re actively encouraging women in Afghanistan to take up learning opportunities with us, and in Northern Iraq we’ve gone to the Yazidis. Our aim is to reach anyone and everyone at the margins of the margins.”  

There’s also a question of quality versus quantity.

It costs Jesuit Worldwide Learning $2,000 a year per student to run a university diploma program in the liberal arts; $1,400 for a vocational program; and $600 for an intensive English language course. “A lot of people ask why we don’t just focus on English because you can reach more people for the same amount of money,” says Bathany. “Our response is that the diploma students are the ones who will be the peacemakers. Every peaceful society needs students in all these programs.”

The report also suggests ways to improve teaching methods. Program staff should talk to their students about their preferred learning styles and conduct feedback reviews, as is the norm at many universities. The paper found that students prefer participatory learning.

Remote instructors, while valuable, do not benefit from the experience that a teacher would gain from being on the ground, the report said. Only one third of students said remote staff had a good understanding of the problems faced by refugees—the rest said distance teachers either understood a little bit or not at all. Commonly, students said remote professors failed to understand the personal challenges that refugees face every day and why they might miss deadlines.

Remote teachers would therefore profit from specialized training on the challenges faced by refugee students, the report advises.

For those wishing to take a look at refugee education through the eyes of students, the report may be useful.


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