Higher education and displaced people: what can your institution do?

7 March 2018

Gordon Slaven

Managing Director
Slaven Consultancy Services

Photo credit: PADILEIA project

​​According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are more than 65 million displaced people in the world: almost 1% of the global population, and equivalent to the population of the UK. About 61% of these are under 26. ​

That's almost 40 million young people likely to be missing out on education at all levels. Only 1% of displaced people are in higher education. This loss of individual opportunity and human potential is immense. But how can UK universities address a problem of this scale?

The answer is that UK universities are already contributing to alleviating this issue in a wide variety of ways, but there is still more that can be done. A new UUKi report 'Higher Education and Displaced People', to be launched at the International Higher Education Forum next week, provides a guide for UK universities. Not a guide in the sense of a Mary Berry Recipe book; providing step by step guidance; but more like a Lonely Planet guide: telling you about the options available for action, with case studies, sources of information and expertise, and allowing you to select the activities and initiatives that most suit your university's ethos and strengths.

Providing access to, and ongoing support for, refugee/asylum-seeker students in your institution is perhaps the most obvious way of supporting them, and almost 60 universities currently provide scholarships to do this. Providing sanctuary for displaced academics, through the Council of At-Risk Academics (CARA) or similar organisations, is a way of helping both the displaced individual academics, but also to retain the academic expertise and capacity that the individual embodies.  There is considerable expertise and experience in a variety of institutions and other organisations on catering for refugee and asylum-seeker students and academics, but one of the most comprehensive guides is the Right to Remain toolkit. The UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA) provides up-to date guidance on fee status, and the latest Home Office guidance.

As well as being more receptive to refugee and asylum seeker students and academics, many UK universities are reaching beyond these to provide outreach services to refugee communities in their city/area. These range from providing English lessons, to mental health and well-being services and help with accommodation. Others are undertaking research into issues surrounding displaced people, both in the UK and elsewhere, to help identify, develop and evaluate interventions both with and for the needs of displaced people and their host communities.

But it is not only in the UK that Universities can contribute. They can provide access to UK education where the majority of the displaced people live: in the affected country, or its near neighbours. This can be done through a transnational education approach: usually blended on-line/face-to-face, working with local educational institution partners, as the Partnership for Digital Learning and Increased Access (PADILEIA) project does. UK students and academic staff also volunteer their skills in refugee camps in the region; and there are many examples of teaching and research institutional partnerships that support capacity-building in the region. 

The new UUKi report is the first attempt to draw all the initiatives currently being undertaken by universities, and other organisations, in the UK to support displaced people/forced migrants, both in the UK and internationally, as well as recognising what other countries and international organisations are doing. Responses and interventions can be crafted at the level of the institution; at local, national, and indeed international levels; and either within host countries or at the place of displacement. These responses can be developed and delivered independently, or as part of networks and collaborations.

So, how can UK universities address this issue? They are already doing a lot, and there are many opportunities to do more, alone or in concert with others. Although there are comparatively few refugees seeking places in UK higher education, it is nevertheless important that, as a community, the UK higher education sector can reflect on the scale and scope of the current challenges facing displaced people and their communities in the UK and around the world, and consider what might be done to engage with and help to address these where possible. The diverse challenges faced by displaced people mean that opportunities exist for UK universities to support the needs and ambitions of displaced people in a wide variety of ways, both here in the UK and beyond. Let's use the launch of this new report to re-commit to integrating the needs of displaced people into our overall educational mission.

Gordon will be sharing some of the findings of the report at the International Higher Education Forum on 14 March. He will be joined by Professor Koen Lamberts, Vice-Chancellor and President at the University of York and Dr Tania Lima, Director, Global Engagement - King's Worldwide at King's College London.

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