study commissioned by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has stressed the need to prioritise access to higher education for refugees, as a tool to rebuild lives and for post-conflict reconstruction. The report Refugee Education: A global review by the policy development and evaluation service of the UNHCR, published last month, said access to education among refugees was limited and uneven across regions and settings of displacement.
Covering primary, secondary and higher education on a global scale, the study aimed to find ways to improve the UN agency's policy and programming in order to better achieve its mandate to promote refugee education. According to the report, lack of financial resources and their inconsistency as well as a shortage of educational expertise both within UNHCR and among implementing partners, has limited progress on refugee education. One of its recommendations is for more higher education opportunities for refugees, since higher education plays a critical role in advancing both individual refugees and leadership in societies in protracted crises and in post-conflict reconstruction.
"In order for education to be a durable solution for refugees, it said, UNHCR should:
  • Prioritise integrating refugees into national education systems, particularly in urban areas, working closely with education ministries and UNICEF to strengthen national systems for the benefit not only of refugees but also host communities.
  • Seek additional opportunities for higher education for refugees, both scholarships and site-based programmes that use open and distance learning.
  • Invest in sequential training for teachers that cultivates high quality skills.
    Three conceptual approaches that guide the field of refugee education and education in emergencies were presented. The humanitarian approach, which the UNHCR was said to be following, views education as one component of a rapid response, providing protection to children.
    The human rights approach emphasises education as a right to be realised and cultivated through education in any situation, including crises. It further defines education as an 'enabling right', providing "skills that people need to reach their full potential and to exercise their other rights, such as the right to life and health".
    The third is the developmental approach, which takes a long-term view of future relevance, recognises education as a long-term investment for society and says lack of quality education in a crisis holds back development potential, even allowing "backward development". The study said universally, refugees who have completed secondary school voice a desire to attend university.
    "Higher education for refugees is not a luxury. It is important both for individuals and for society in terms of rebuilding lives and fostering leadership in both protracted settings and post-conflict reconstruction," said the report.
    A study of DAFI, the German acronym for the Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative, a programme for Afghan refugees, demonstrated "a direct link between a refugee programme focused on tertiary education and national reconstruction".
    "The study shows that refugees who had access to higher education moved back earlier in the repatriation process, with 70% taking up work as civil servants or as NGO managers, filling much-needed roles in a society in the process of rebuilding," said the report.
    "Importantly, in 2008 approximately 6% of DAFI students were engaged in teacher training activities, assisting in the creation of a cadre of teachers to assist in rebuilding the education system.
    "Opportunities for higher education for refugees, however, are severely limited."
    UNHCR supports higher education for refugees predominantly through the DAFI programme, which provides scholarships for study at colleges and universities in host countries. Demand for the scholarships far outstrips their availability: UNHCR generally receives between 10 and 30 applications for each available scholarship. It said several higher education programmes for refugees have developed outside of UNHCR, including through the World University Service of Canada and the Windle Trust. More recently there has been growth in higher education opportunities that combine scholarships and distance education.
    "Despite the new initiatives, higher education remains low on the agenda for most donors, perceived as a 'luxury' for an elite few, especially in contexts where access to primary and secondary education is not universal," the report added.
    It said there was little evidence of tangible organisational commitment by UNHCR to guaranteeing the right to quality education for refugee children and young people. For example, the education unit at UNHCR headquarters was said to be shockingly small, with one senior education officer for overall coordination, policy advice and technical support to field offices, and one DAFI education officer to manage the UN agency's main higher education scholarship scheme.