SNHU GEM Students Call on Universities to Do More to Expand Higher Education Access for Refugees

Student holding microphone and speaking to audience

To reach the UNHCR target of enrolling 15 percent of refugees in higher education by 2030, SNHU GEM students called on universities, international organizations and governments to work with refugees to provide more opportunities for refugees to enroll in higher education by taking into account the complex circumstances of displaced learners.

UNHCR set a target of enrolling 15 percent of refugees in higher education programs by 2030. Currently, just six percent of refugees have access to higher education. Big changes need to happen to reach that target, including more universities, international organizations and governments working together to provide opportunities that are designed to meet displaced learners where they are and take into account the complex circumstances they face in pursuing their studies. For that to happen, refugees must be front and center, as part of the solution, helping to build and steer programming designed with their needs at the core. 

Several SNHU Global Education Movement (GEM) students, who are members of the Connected Learning in Crisis Consortium’s (CLCC) Student Engagement Task Force, coordinated by UNHCR, authored the following op-ed which ran in the Times of Higher Education

The UNHCR target of enrolling 15 percent of refugees into higher education by 2030 is a commendable one. However, our experience as refugee higher education students based in Malawi, Rwanda and Kenya suggests that it will be very hard to achieve without a great collective effort by universities, international organisations, governments and refugees themselves.

Enrolling at a university in Rwanda was a dream come true, but studying as a refugee was much harder than expected. It has been really challenging to fit into a university community that has no experience of forced displacement. As a refugee student, you have to compete with non-refugees, which can be intimidating and leave you doubting yourself and feeling exposed. But extracurricular activities helped to foster a sense of belonging, and career counselling and internships were a very useful source of workplace experience, skills and confidence.

In Malawi, the change that access to higher education has brought to the refugee community is clear. It has taught people to adapt to having scarce resources, as well as how to manage waste and live sustainably. Malawi has been deeply affected by climate change, while disasters such as erosion and flooding have had a huge impact on our communities and threaten our own lives. However, studying sustainable development has helped us plan for an adaptive future.

In Kenya, only a small number of university scholarships are available for refugees, but many of the students who have enrolled have come up with innovative, community-based projects. These have included solutions for waste management and tree planting to minimise the impact of changing climate. One student even has an initiative to promote fishing in the desert!

While many countries have put up barriers to refugee higher education by asking refugees to pay tuition fees as foreigners, other countries have taken commendable steps towards providing inclusive higher education opportunities for refugees. In particular, several countries in West Africa that host large numbers of refugees have made university fees for refugees the same as for nationals. Despite these efforts, the number of refugees enrolled in higher education remains low, calling for a collective response to address this educational disparity.

We call on universities to provide more opportunities for refugees, including in the locations where they are based. Digital learning is an option in this regard, and it allowed us to earn our degrees, but it also has its challenges. We all live in areas where there is limited access to computers, stable internet or even electricity. We have to travel long distances to reach community centres, where the internet might not even be working when we arrive. Universities need to ensure that they have planned for these challenges before they start delivering courses.

In addition, some of the courses offered to refugees only provide theoretical knowledge, rather than practical knowledge that we can apply to real lives or use to find jobs. We have seen that, following their studies, many refugees cannot find paid work and, therefore, have to work as volunteers.

So while access to universities is crucial for refugees, the quality of the programmes cannot be overlooked. It is essential to ensure that higher education in refugee settings meets recognised standards and provides useful knowledge and skills. Too often, educational opportunities for refugees are limited to makeshift schools or short, unstructured online courses, which might not adequately prepare them for further studies or employment.

Efforts should be made to collaborate with universities, NGOs and education providers to design comprehensive and relevant curricula, extracurricular activities and exchange programmes between refugees and the outer world. Tailored language courses, internships and careers guidance and counselling should be incorporated into the programmes to enhance practical skills and improve employment outcomes

Additionally, a lot of refugee students have many things going on in their personal lives and need psychological support. However, it is a taboo even to talk about mental health in many of our locations. Moreover, there are no clear channels even when you decide to seek support.

Refugees need a full package of support and empowerment if they are to lift themselves and their communities. Quality education is often the only way for them to be able to rebuild their lives, improve their families’ well-being and positively contribute to their host countries.

Gentille Dusenge, Jackson Byiringiro and Isaac Ayuen are members of the Student Engagement Task Force, a group of students who are either studying at or have graduated from universities in the Connected Learning in Crisis Consortium, coordinated by UNHCR.