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How are educators worldwide responding to the refugee crisis?

In what is nothing short of a global crisis, there are now over 65 million displaced people around the world. The crisis in Syria alone accounts for 10 million displaced people, with four million of these resettled overseas. Among those millions are students whose futures are at risk of being lost forever without access to higher education.

Student refugees private sponsorship Canada WUSCStudents meet refugees at the airport to welcome them to Canada. Photo: WUSC.

“This is the biggest displaced student crisis maybe in our hundred years of history”

“The single most important word for us is ‘unprecedented’,” begins Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education, speaking about the US-based organisation’s efforts to help refugees. “This is the biggest displaced student crisis maybe in our hundred years of history.”

And the numbers are indeed staggering. According to IIE, as many as 200,000 university-aged students have been disconnected from higher education due to the crisis. That’s almost four times the student population of New York University.

“The single most important word for us is ‘unprecedented’”

To help with refugee students’ transition into education, IIE set up a Syria Consortium in 2012, which has helped hundreds of Syrian students with scholarships at partner institutions, test preparation courses and top-up grants. The demand for these resources, however, has been overwhelming. The last round offering 32 scholarships received more than 2,600 applications.

The volume of refugee students looking to enrol presents an array of challenges education institutions. Turkey – the country hosting the most Syrian refugees – already struggles with capacity issues in its cramped universities. Almost two million Turkish students take the university entrance exam each year, and less than half secure a space.

“Now there is this whole new population that is being added to the demand for the university places, so it kind of compounds the issue,” says Melissa Abache, global engagement manager at Koç University in Istanbul, one member of IIE’s Syria Consortium.

Learning the local language

Without knowledge of the local language, refugees face great hurdles resettling in a new country. Without it, “finding work, studying, making friends, and feeling part of the community is extremely difficult”, says Gonzalo Peralta, executive director of Languages Canada.

The national association’s member schools collaborated to offer more than 15,500 student weeks to refugee students in 2016 to help them progress with their language learning. However, only 2,500-3,000 weeks were taken up by 135 students, according to Peralta.

“Government and other bodies have to devise a system that meets the new reality”

“The influx of so many refugees – remember Canada is a small country in terms of population – in such a short time put a lot of stress on resources, and pointed to flaws in coordinating the available resources,” he says. “Government and other bodies have to do a better job coordinating in the future and devise a system that meets the new reality.”

Canada has been outspoken about its welcoming ambitions, and institutions like Centennial College have been supporting professional development for staff and working with external resettlement organisations in order to work more effectively with refugees.

“We have convened a student refugee working group to ensure all support services and relevant departments at the college are able to provide support including enrolment services, career services, campus mental health and the student association,” says Yasmin Razack, its director of global citizenship education & inclusion.

Canada’s laws also allow resettlement through private sponsorship of permanent residence applications. World University Service of Canada facilitates refugee resettlement through this program by connecting refugees with higher education institutions, which act as sponsors. The student bodies they work with also coordinate a campus-wide levy that all students pay into to fund scholarships for these students.

In 2015/16, the program secured placements for 160 students, double the previous year’s total. Michelle Manks, senior manager – campus engagement & student refugee program, attributes the growth to the attention the crisis has received, along with WUSC’s efforts to engage more vocational providers. “That is a whole other group of institutions that can participate and that are very much in line with some of the needs that newcomers have,” she says.

Proof of study

Lack of sufficient documentation to prove previous study, as well as recognising and transferring complete or incomplete foreign qualifications, is a big hurdle for education institutions to overcome.

It is a challenge for institutions to identify refugees’ qualifications “in an effective, correct and fair manner”

It is a challenge for institutions to identify refugees’ qualifications “in an effective, correct and fair manner”, says Stig Arne Skjerven, director of foreign education at the Norwegian Agency for Quality Assurance in Education (NOKUT).

NOKUT’s pilot Qualifications Passport for Refugees aims to address this problem. It compiles and addresses refugees’ existing documentation, coupled with a structured interview, and presents language proficiency and work experience information.

The passport “has proved to be an appropriate assessment solution for newly arrived refugees in the Norwegian context”, says Skjerven. “The method, we believe, can easily be adopted in other contexts as well.” The Norwegian government will adopt the qualifications passport as a supplement to NOKUT’s existing recognition services this year, and it will also be rolled out for trial in Greece in a project from the Council of Europe.

The good news is that providing refugees with access to education is garnering a global response. The European Universities Association launched an online tool in early 2016 allowing education institutions, government agencies and more to share their programs. The interactive Refugees Welcome Map now displays around 250 initiatives around the world.

“The purpose of the map is precisely to allow institutions that do and do not receive [government] support to showcase and share their initiatives,” says Michael Gaebel, director of higher education policy at EUA. “We know that some of these initiatives have developed through exchange and collaboration through the map.”

Digital response

“We are not and we never want to be a university; we are just the facilitator”

Despite all of these organisations’ best efforts, on-campus learning alone seems unlikely to meet the demand for education for refugee students in a short space of time. But online study is becoming another solution to the problem .

Since its inception in 2015,Germany-based Kiron has been helping refugees to access courses online, and assisting them to then progress on to a partner university. After working with refugees in Germany, its co-founder, Markus Kreßler, says he found inspiration to “bring an alternative way to amplify education”. Over 5,000 refugee students from around the world have so far registered.

“We are not and we never want to be a university; we are just the facilitator, the tunnel function for them to prepare themselves to apply and then skip the first year at the university,” Kreßler comments. After taking MOOCs through the platform, students use the credits they accumulate to apply to one of Kiron’s 25 partner universities in Germany, France, Jordan, and Turkey.

Despite his initial concern about universities’ willingness to be involved, Kreßler says many contacted Kiron directly. “It turned out to be the biggest asset,” he says. He hopes to scale the platform in the future, opening up to other countries and educational institutions.

IIE is also hoping to channel online education’s reach through its Platform for Education in Emergencies Response (PEER), launched with The Catalyst Trust for Universal Education. Students will be able to use the platform to search for educational opportunities, scholarships and language learning programs online.

Access for academics

“These are the highest levels since the 1930s”

Scholars are also among those escaping conflict at home and in need of placement overseas. UK-based Cara, the Council for At-Risk Academics works with more than 110 UK universities, which provide placements for foreign academics through its Fellowship Programme. It works with a number of international partners too.

“At [the end of] 2014 we were supporting 60 fellows,” explains Stephen Wordsworth, its executive director. “Now we are supporting 240, with 300+ family dependants. These are the highest levels since the 1930s, when Cara was founded.”

While a large number of students fleeing conflict zones in the Middle East are seeking residency in another country, many instead have a strong desire to return home. “They are not ‘refugees’ and do not wish to be seen as such,” says Wordsworth. “So even when they are away, they are still very much linked to events in their home countries, and affected by them.”

US-based Scholars At Risk, whose exceeds 450 institutions in 34 countries, is also experiencing a record high number of applications, in part due to the refugee crisis. The network has partnered with the Philipp Schwartz Initiative in Germany, which provides universities with the means to host foreign academics for two years on fellowships, some of whom are refugees.

“We’re all living through a period of uncertainty now about who can be admitted”

“Given the scale of the crises today, we recognise the importance of such initiatives as well as the growth of our network,” says Sarina Rosenthal, SAR’s program officer, protection services. “But we also understand that even more can and needs to be done to support threatened scholars at this time.”

However, institutions’ ability to host refugee students and scholars in the US was thrown into question by President Trump’s two controversial executive orders temporarily banning visitors and refugees from certain countries. The US’s Syrian refugee programme was also suspended.

Though both have been halted – for the moment – there may yet be uncertain times ahead.

“We’re all living through a period of uncertainty now about who can be admitted and from what countries,” says Goodman. “What hasn’t changed is the willingness of higher education institutions to offer a haven to scholars from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen.”

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