Mending the Pipeline to Postsecondary Education for Refugees

By Allan Goodman
President and CEO, Institute of International Education

When we discuss the challenges that refugees face gaining access to education, the conversation focuses almost exclusively on primary or secondary schooling.  A related and no less pressing issue is the disruption of postsecondary education in the lives of displaced or refugee youth.

At the recent World Innovation Summit on Education (WISE) in Doha, I was able to join a plenary panel to focus on the problem.  This year, the conference convened approximately 2,000 delegates in Qatar from November 14 to 16, giving those of us in higher education a chance to better understand trends impacting the pipeline from secondary to postsecondary schooling worldwide. 

Image: Allan Goodman at WISE 2017 Conference

Allan Goodman speaks on a plenary panel at the WISE Summit 2017 on Education for refugee youth.

WISE was founded in 2009 by the Qatar Foundation as a global platform to lead innovative thinking and develop solutions to the world’s problems in education. The summit is held biennially and gathers leaders and thinkers from across the globe for several days of dynamic discussion. As one of the founding members of WISE, IIE has been a part of the conversation from the very start. 

We know that refugees and displaced persons have limited educational options. The lack of access to primary and secondary schools is an immediate and critical concern. About 264 million children who should be going to school do not, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. 

Relief organizations working with refugees on the ground are often preoccupied with providing the infrastructure necessary for basic survival, such as housing, sanitation and access to food and clean water. This leaves relatively little bandwidth for developing schools and academic resources.

We see this lack of access to education borne out in the numbers. According to the UNHCR, only half of refugee students attend primary school, compared to 91 percent of students globally.

UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, released a report last year that found that 3.7 million of the 6 million school-age children under its mandate have no school to attend. That means 1.75 primary school children and 1.95 million adolescents living in refugee camps have no way to access an education. 

These numbers, as troubling as they are, may not capture the full scope of lost human potential. Many refugees and displaced young people do not appear in statistics in part because no one really knows how many there are or where they may be temporarily living.

Education is vital to these young people’s futures, and they deserve the chance to get one. When access to primary and secondary education is so limited, higher education might seem like an impossible dream, but it should not be so. 

We must better leverage our resources to help more students return to college or university. These students may have completed secondary school and moved on to postsecondary education before conflict or disaster prevented them from pursuing their studies further. They were on their way to achieving their dreams and furthering their pursuit of knowledge. 

From IIE’s work with the Syria Consortium and the Platform for Education in Emergencies Response (PEER) we know that refugee students thrive if they can resume their studies. During an October trip to Jordan, I met with students attending university through IIE’s Camps to Campus program, which funds tuition for displaced or refugee students. They are a testament to the fact that students can still excel if given the chance to return to school even when their studies have been interrupted for five years or more. Displaced students I spoke with at WISE confirmed this.

The good news is that there is no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to higher education. Across the globe, there are thousands of institutions of higher education, fully staffed and collectively prepared to teach every discipline imaginable. 

I invited the delegates at my WISE panel to imagine innovative solutions for this lost generation of young scholars. What if every university took at least one refugee student and at least one refugee scholar or teacher?  What if the number of scholarships and opportunities now listed on the IIE PEER webpage increased from the nearly 700 currently available to 30,000?  What if universities made it easier for refugee students to apply by creating a common application system that could match them with institutions in their region? 

Prior to and after our session there was lively discussion about how this could all be financed, especially if students did not speak the language of instruction and were not living close to a university.  Paying for living expenses is also a necessary and often difficult consideration – although there are existing aid programs designed to help mitigate this issue.

As one refugee student put it, “No problem.  Compared to what we have been through, learning a new language is easier. And we don’t mind spending a year or two, however long it takes.  At least we will know that we are going to get back into school and finish our education.”  

By opening our doors now, every relief assistance dollar flowing to a displaced higher ed student would be leveraged a thousand times over. We already have all the resources we need in place for their education. 

In short, we don’t have to build it.  We just have to make sure they know they can and are welcome to come.