Refugees and Higher Education

Part IV: Initiatives Already Underway

MOOCs aside, a number of online efforts and consortia have emerged targeting new educational opportunities for refugees. Those initiatives can be enlisted as partners. There are those that facilitate stakeholders through consultation but do not provide program content or bridge institutions, such as the Connected Learning in Crisis Consortium that functions as an exchange of best practices and promotes and coordinates quality higher education in conflict, crisis and displacement zones through connected learning to make accredited higher education accessible to refugee and other displaced learners.

This is as serious a problem as content. The lack of access is called the “digital divide.”[i]

Then there are the academic programmers that provide the content and curricula:

  • Education for Humanity sponsored by the ASU and Norwegian Refugee Council to provide digital English Language courses in a blended learning format to Syrian refugees residing in Amman; ASU provides a one-year “Global Freshman Academy” consisting of online courses offered in partnership with local NGOs (focusing on Uganda and Jordan)
  • Southern New Hampshire University Global Education Movement (GEM) partnered with local institutions like Kepler in Kigali, Jusoor in Amman as well as partners in South Africa, Lebanon, Kenya, Rwanda and Malawi providing online coursework leading to associate’s or bachelor’s degrees for refugee learners in partnership with Jesuit Worldwide Learning
  • Partnership for Digital Learning and Increased Access (PADILEIA) King’s College London working with Kiron and other universities to target needs of Syrian learners in Jordan and Lebanon offering both blended and online-only courses with partners such as Al al-Bayt University and American University of Beirut, as well as Kiron
  • MIT ReACT Hub launched its first program in Jordan with a certificate in Computer and Data Science
  • REACH at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Research Education and Action for Refugees Harvard Graduate School of Education which aims to foster welcoming communities and quality education in settings of migration and displacement.
  • InZone at the University of Geneva initially led by Barbara Moser-Mercer, in Kakuma (Kenya), Asraq and Za’atari camps (Jordan), with human rights, history (GHL), and translation courses
  • Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER) from the Center for Refugee Studies led by Professors Wenona Giles and Don Dippo[ii] which focuses on language and education training working closely with partners in Kenya, WUSC, and more recently the University of British Columbia; it recently graduated its first cohort of students with a MEd from York University[iii]
  • The Jesuit Digital Network (JDN) developing a new-generation online platform for sharing digital educational resources and hosting multiple global and local learning communities to create, deliver, and continuously improve digital educational material, including digital learning objects, learning communities, and new generation online courses from middle school through post-graduate courses
  • Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins and Jesuit Worldwide Learning with a unique model of integrated partnerships that sustains programs in development, leadership, and liberal studies
  • Microsoft offers free training and curriculum resources to help humanitarian organizations deliver training that will help refugees gain digital literacy and computer science skills
  • OSUN and the Bard Network with a global reach with educational partners in locations around the world such as a multitude of fugitive universities in Lebanon (GHL), Jordan (AQB and GHL), Nairobi (AQB, GHL, Rift Valley Institute) and Bangladesh (Brac University)[iv]
  • Princeton’s Global History Lab with a 22-partner network within OSUN, with refugee programs in Lebanon, Jordan, Kenya, Iraq, Uganda and in Europe (Paris, with Sciences Po, Berlin/Potsdam, and Athens with Panteion University).[v]

There are also aggregators which pool content, connect to partners and design articulated pathways or learning clusters to make them available to universities for entrance, such as Kiron Open Higher Education based in Berlin with a great deal of experience at creating systems for refugees to enter German higher educational institutions. The European Commission and the Directorate General Joint Research Centre maps and analyzes MOOCs and free digital learning programs for migrants and refugees. Here: Higher Education Supporting Refugees in Europe, based in the Mediterranean Universities Union, is another aggregator.

A specific combination of organizations with active local partners that offer accredited degrees while engaged in local capacity building and attending to the material and social needs of refugees seems to work best. “Refugee students in Dadaab described as critical, but not singular, the assistance provided by UNHCR and its NGO partners, particularly in building schools, hiring and paying teachers, and providing scholarships for higher education. Within these support structures, refugee students drew on a complex web of locally and globally situated relationships.”[vi] There is a need to create integrated learning systems that invest in programs that open gateways and create links between sectors and stakeholders.

Fixed costs are on the rise, income is declining as well as investments in technologies and methods of teaching to counteract the results. The benefit, however, may be the increased pressure to move both to a new model and a much broader and reconceptualized vision of the university. What has emerged as a competitor to the consumer model has been a very different university, one that addresses global issues and not just problems in one’s society, that engages students in active learning in the application of what they know and in the extraction from that action to enrich the body of knowledge informing them. It is a university in which the whole idea of the university as a sanctuary has come tumbling down and the process of embedding universities and colleges into the societies that sustain them is completed.

It is a university engaged in partnerships with business, with civil society organizations and with the larger world and where the foremost problems are worldwide – climate change, refugees and, yes, pandemics at a time when knowledge is more free-flowing than ever, students and scholars more mobile, both physically and electronically, and when teaching and research have both transcended local or national boundaries. Tentatively and for convenience, I have dubbed it the Welcoming University, though a better term would be very welcome – no pun intended.

These trends are already well underway. Waterloo University innovated in partnering with businesses so that students and researchers can split their time between academia and business.[vii] The practice has broadened from computer science and engineering to other fields and has been copied by many institutions. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt at the 2020 Elevate Technology Conference in Toronto painted a picture of Toronto as a research-driven innovation hub that’s collaborative, inclusive and uniquely Canadian driven by artificial intelligence research at the University of Toronto and in universities in the mega-region as well as close ties between post-secondary institutions and industry players. Hence, Google Brain Toronto in partnership with the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence as well as federal and provincial governments. At Vector, academia and industry work together to support both applied and fundamental AI research. Such partnerships are not without their hazards. The cancellation of Quayside was a serious blow to this collaboration.

Ride-sharing giant Uber plans to invest $200 million into a new Toronto engineering lab, Microsoft plans to open a new office in downtown Toronto. Chip-maker Intel plans to set up an engineering lab north of the city that focuses on graphics processing units, or GPUs. Companies, from LG to Nvidia,  plan to set up new AI-focused research labs in Toronto in connection  with U of T.

In the U.S., Google has offices in many universities and co-hires faculty; Cornell Tech’s new campus on Roosevelt Island is buoyed by many private sector joint ventures; Pfizer created a biotech campus in Boston in 2014 with a specific aim of being able to liaise and partner with the region’s powerhouse universities; Philips Healthcare followed suit to initiate a Cambridge MA the next year for the same reason.  Long before COVID, universities turned to complex partnerships to fund training and applied research in the pursuit of coveted intellectual property.

The eclipse of the national social service autonomous university in favour of an international interconnected global one means new pathways for learning, new models of learning and new modes of producing knowledge. It also moves universities and colleges from support roles in society into central actors in the emergence of a welcoming society, a knowledge and information-based society and one, more specifically, that can serve as a route for refugees to gain the security of membership in a state via their accomplishments in higher education.

COVID-19 has emerged as an inflexion point in this transformation. That is because of the development of online learning which COVID-19 has forced into a central place from its peripheral role in the very recent past. Distance online learning allows university and college courses to be delivered directly to refugees in camps and in urban areas where they may have temporarily self-settled but without the legal security of membership in the state. COVID-19 has spurred and will spur even greater massive investments in online learning.

There will be feedback on the institution, its nature and the way it fulfills its mission as well. First, many universities will be receptive to thinking outside and beyond the four-year educational box, including more programmatic innovation and accessibility for refugee and at-risk migrants while allowing them to combine schooling and work in the process of resettlement. Second, the internalization of distance technologies will enable pathways to develop that lead all the way to the source of the conflicts that produce and contain the global migrant crisis. Third, partnerships are the future. While the focus will largely be on businesses, universities are linking with each other, joining forces with NGO’s and philanthropic organizations to extend their sprawling internship and civic-engagement missions.

At the same time, because of closures, and, more importantly, shifts back and forth in closure plans, variable costs have increased that could have been invested in new teaching tools and skills to suit online learning. At the same time, incomes may decline as students drop out unwilling to pay high fees for an inferior product.

However, if monies are invested in new teaching tools and new technologies, there are long-term savings. Universities will be able to play a dual role, not only in addressing a social problem on a global scale but also in allowing student refugees to acquire higher and marketable skills. At the same time, the student and faculty body in our universities, with the support of society, can lead in the provision of private sponsorship to a proportion of those refugee students in the global south to migrate to cities of the global north.[viii] Private sector partners will have to invest their share based on both longer time horizons that learning and open experimentation require as well as broadening their global vision to deal with humanitarian crises.

The current idea of the university is ill-suited to this purpose as anything but a peripheral role. They are too de-linked, too decentralized, too competitive and too resistant to a top-down approach to higher education. The private sponsorship of refugee students led by universities and colleges will greatly accelerate a process of transformation already underway. Into what? An institution propelled to change from the bottom up based on partnerships of students and faculty. A coalition- sustained higher education system rather than one in which universities have to anticipate the needs of society based on guestimates. A university system in which not only universities and colleges enter into more partnerships much more frequently, but where they conjoin with municipalities, with businesses and with social institutions (NGOs) to enhance the quality of their graduates and ensure a much higher percentage of them graduate.

[i] Leung, Linda (2018) Technologies of Refuge and Displacement Rethinking Digital Divides, Roman and Littlefield. Refugees as a group have received scant attention as technology users, despite their urgent need for technological access, as a minimum for tenuous links to family and loved ones during displacement. An article in Toronto Life by Raizel Robin (“Class Dismissed”) describes the digital divide within Toronto when the school board tried to adapt distance learning to the absence of classroom education when schools were shuttered. There turned out to be two digital divides, one by about one-third of households, overwhelmingly immigrant, who lacked a computer to which their child could have a dedicated use and about 10% who even lacked internet connectivity. The second was one among teachers, many of whom were computer illiterate, found distance education alienating and were wary of mastering the skills. The Board had to deal with the lack of technology: “they would need to transition to remote learning” and “they had to make sure all 250,000 students…would have a functional and up-to-date computer…Once the kids were finally set up with computers, it became apparent that a quarter of the board’s teachers didn’t know how to use the TDSB-supplied online teaching software or needed a refresher.” (64-65) To complicate the situation further, the teachers’ unions were at war with and were not cooperating with the Board. If you understand the extent of the difficulties that deeply sabotaged the effort to introduce distance education in pre-tertiary schools in a sophisticated region like Toronto, imagine how hard it will be to set up distance learning in refugee camps and in urban areas where refugees have self-settled. Fortunately, as discussed in this paper, we have now had far more experience with distance education for refugees than Toronto has had for its elementary and secondary school pupils.

[ii] See their chapter in Susan McGrath and Julie Young (eds.) (2019) Mobilizing Global Knowledge: Refugee Research in an Age of Displacement. See also Susan F. Martin, Rochelle Davis, Grace Benton and Zoya Waliany (2018) “Working paper: International Responsibility-Sharing for Refugees,” as part of the KNOMAD Working Paper Series of the Global Knowledge Partnership on Migration and Development (KNOMAD). Multidisciplinary knowledge is used to generate policy options, the latter, in particular, focused on responsibility-sharing.


[iv] Work is underway on child exploitation and protection in Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh for Rohingya refugees, but the focus of this paper is on career paths for refugees in their later teen years. For work on the former, see Bina D’Costa from the Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness, & the Melbourne Social Equity Institute on Migration, Refugees and Statelessness. For an overview of the Rohingya crisis, see the report of Bob Rae, currently the Canadian ambassador to the UN, at IRIN news. Also  Ashrafuk Azad and Fareha Jasmin (2013) “Durable solutions to the protracted refugee situation- The case of Rohingyas in Bangladesh decades in the making,” Journal of Indian Research, I:4, 25-35.

[v] See also Asad Hussein, who moved from being a refugee to attending Princeton University as a student, “Chasing the Mirage, from Nairobi to New York City,” New York Review of Books, 4 April 2020.

[vi] Sarah Dryden-Peterson, Negin Dahya, and Elizabeth Adelman (2017) “Pathways to Educational Success Among Refugees: Connecting Locally and Globally Situated Resources.” American Educational Research Journal 54:6, December, 1011–47.

[1] See Sanchit Mittal (2020) “Canadian Contribution to the Global Refugee Crisis,” MBA Vancouver Island University.–3bd838bd769e3a0ef642e4691b2395991cb6c26d/t/bvH43-NWouApr-yrVJ/resource/work/38999592/Canadian_Contribution_to_the_Global_Refugee_Crisis_MBA_541_Corporate_Social_Responsibility?email_work_card=thumbnail

[viii] See Migration Policy Institute (2018) “Decision: Private Refugee Sponsorship: Concepts, Cases and Consequences.” See also Bose, Pablo and Lucas Grigri (2018) PR4: Refugee Resettlement Trends in the Midwest. Refugee Resettlement in Small Cities Reports. University of Vermont. May. This report shows the importance of cities in the effort at resettlement and offers evidence that, in the US, the experience of coastal cities is currently being replicated in cities in middle America. Finally, the scholarship on India is very instructive. Cities are engines of economic growth greatly enhanced by migration. That growth is enhanced when migrants are assisted and undercut when obstacles are put in the way of refugees and migrants. Cf. Samaddar, Ranabir (ed.) (2018) Migrants and the Neoliberal City. Orient Blackswan See also the pact on the rights of urban refugees entered into in November 2017 by the International Organization for Migration and the umbrella group United Cities and Local Governments, which included 150 cities around the world.


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