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U.N. Outlines 15 Steps for Helping Refugees Access Higher Education

In a recent paper, two United Nations agencies offered 15 recommendations that policy makers in six countries, including Egypt and Turkey, could adopt to facilitate refugee students’ access to higher education.

The recommendations include calls to improve procedures for recognising prior learning, and to make funding more available to refugee students and the universities that assist them.

The recommendations are contained in a policy paper titled “Refugees’ Access to Higher Education in their Host Countries: Overcoming the ‘Super-Disadvantage”.

The paper was published in May by the International Institute for Educational Planning, which is part of Unesco, and UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency.

Michaela Martin, a programme specialist at the International Institute for Educational Planning, is the paper’s main author. She said the paper sought to identify “inclusive policies and good practices to respond to the many challenges that refugee students face to access higher education in their host country.”

The paper’s authors reviewed of the experiences of six countries in supporting young refugees’ access to higher education. The selected countries all have considerable refugee populations. Besides Egypt and Turkey, they are Ethiopia, France, Germany and Norway.

Over 100 Million Displaced People

“Refugees face many obstacles when trying to access their host country’s higher-education system. … Together, these add up to a ‘super-disadvantage’ which makes access to host-country higher education more than difficult.”

From the policy paper

Recently, the number of people forced to flee conflict, violence, human rights violations and persecution crossed the staggering milestone of 100 million for the first time on record, UNHCR reported in May.

According to the refugee agency, the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide rose towards 90 million by the end of 2021, propelled by new waves of violence or protracted conflict in countries including Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Myanmar, Nigeria, Afghanistan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Since then, the war in Ukraine has displaced eight million people within the country this year, and an estimated five million refugees from Ukraine remain outside the country, according to UNHCR data on border crossings.

Refugees’ Access to Higher Education

Martin said that the new policy paper presents inclusive policies and good practices from the six selected host countries for overcoming the challenges to including refugees in their higher-education institutions.

“Refugees face many obstacles when trying to access their host country’s higher-educations system,” the paper says.

These may include legal restrictions, prohibitive tuition fees and living costs, constraining language requirements, difficulties in getting their prior education credentials recognized, as well as additional barriers faced by female students.

“Together, these add up to a ‘super-disadvantage’ which makes access to host-country higher education more than difficult,” it says.

“Limited or absent funding is one of the most decisive obstacles preventing qualified refugee students from accessing higher education. Funding is necessary to cover tuition and other fees, as well as living and study expenses.”

From the policy paper

Globally, just 3 percent of refugees are enrolled in higher education, according to 2021 estimates. By comparison, the global gross enrolment ratio was nearly 40 percent in 2020.

UNHCR aims to increase the share of refugees enrolled in higher education to 15 percent by 2030 through a plan called 15by30.

Martin noted that higher education benefits both refugee students and their host countries. Education changes students’ lives by providing them with skills development, economic integration, and job opportunities. By giving refugee students’ access to higher education, host countries can support their own economy and development plans, she said.

Moreover, access to higher education enhances students’ motivation to succeed in pre-university education, and their social and economic integration and life chances, she said.

15 Recommendations

In pursuit of UNHCR’s 15by30 enrolment goal, the policy paper proposes a common set of measures for host countries and educational institutions to adopt.

Among the recommendations are calls for host countries to include the access of refugee students to higher education in their national higher-education policy documents and to establish intra-ministerial coordination structures to facilitate refugees’ access to higher education.

The recommendations also urge countries to adopt an “equal opportunities policy” for refugees’ access to higher education, and to collect enrolment information in a standardized format to allow monitoring of refugee participation in host-country higher education.

Another recommendation calls for making available to refugees easily accessible information on national higher-education systems, admission formalities, funding opportunities, and credential recognition.

The recommendations also include calls to offer structured opportunities for preparatory courses to refugees so they can obtain student status as soon as possible after arrival in host country; to combine preparatory programmes with opportunities for social integration; and to provide special support and coaching programmes to women students.

Three of the recommendations deal with credential recognition. One calls on host countries to offer flexible procedures for recognising refugees’ credentials in general. Another urges them to develop flexible policies on recognition of prior learning (RPL), recognising refugee students’ non-formal and informal prior learning though interview-based documentation.

A third seeks to ensure that credits refugees obtained from higher-educations institutions in their home countries or a host country are recognized and can be applied to further study.

Several recommendations deal with the lack of funding that often prevents qualified refugee students from accessing higher education. One calls for exempting refugee students from tuition fees or linking up with international donors to cover their fees. This proposal will be the subject of later discussion between the concerned organisations and the host countries.

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Another financial-aid recommendation calls for giving refugees access to national, contingency-based student-loan systems to cover their living costs. A third calls for making available funding for higher-education institutions to support refugees.

Finally, the paper calls for organising and supporting networks of higher-education institutions that engage collectively to support refugee students.

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