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Alexander Betts, Director, Refugee Study Centre, Oxford University

An expert on forced migration and refugees, Alexander Betts has dedicated his life to understanding how changing demographics can shape societies and their attitudes. As those attitudes change around the world, he spoke with The PIE News at EAIE on why he believes education is the cause of and solution to the populist ideology.

The PIE: How did you get into the study of forced migration?

"It struck me as a human tragedy that we don't recognise those skills and talents and engage with them more"

AB: When I was 19, I was an undergraduate, and like many undergraduates, I had a long summer holiday, lots of free time and not much money. It was the time of the Kosovo crisis in Europe; hundreds of thousands of Muslim refugees had crossed from the Balkans up to Western Europe.

I didn’t know very much about refugees, but I had the chance to spend the summer doing voluntary work with refugees and asylum seekers in the Netherlands. I was helping build a playground and organise games and activities for the kids.

What struck me was although these people were stuck in limbo, usually without the right to work, in some cases excluded from the formal education system, they brought skills, talents, and aspiration. A Bosniak lawyer taught me the basis of public international law. An Iranian table tennis player taught me table tennis.

It struck me as a human tragedy that we don’t recognise those skills and talents and engage with them more. I decided to focus my undergraduate dissertation on the economics of refugee issues, and then do my graduate work.

The more I travelled in Africa to refugee camps, the more a similar dynamic replicated. People with great abilities to contribute were treated like a burden and left indefinitely year after year in refugee camps. There wasn’t much academic work on the politics and the economics of this, so that’s what I decided to do with my career.

The PIE: Have we learned anything from the Kosovo crisis for the current humanitarian crisis?

AB: The thing about being an academic is you can work in an area for many years and no one’s particularly interested, then something changes in the world and everyone’s interested. From about April 2015, with the start of the so-called European refugee crisis, everyone’s become interested in refugees. That has huge advantages, albeit against the backdrop of tragic circumstances.

“The really positive side of it is more people are trying to innovate”

It means there is a lot of buzz from people who have maybe not thought of refugees in the past to innovate. To introduce the benefits of technology; to adapt public and social institutions to the needs of refugees.

The drawback of that is there’s a lot of noise out there. There’s a lot of people who want to work with refugees because it’s a “hot topic” and a “hot issue”.

The strength and the really positive side of it is more people are trying to innovate and be creative in a variety of ways.

Whether it’s about appropriate education for refugees in Europe or globally through e-learning; whether it’s through designing apps that are refugee-specific; whether it’s through promoting refugee-entrepreneurship; whether it’s through social-entrepreneurship that can support refugees.

There’s a whole space in the nonprofit sector and the social-enterprise sector that’s doing more and more to support refugees.

“We need to ensure the university is a space for open dialogue”

The PIE: What work needs to be done to ensure the general population doesn’t embrace protectionist ideas?

AB: Without a doubt, the refugee crisis in Europe, and the way it was publicly perceived were a major cause of Brexit and rising populist nationalism in Europe. Without the influx of Syrian refugees, that opportunity for the rise of the far-right would not have been as great as it has been. That’s a political tragedy.

It was a crisis of politics and the question of representation. We need to ensure that the public understands who refugees are, why they’re coming to Europe, and the numbers were and should have been manageable.

That requires that our education system provides a knowledge-base and an awareness amongst all students at all ages of social and political issues like the refugee crisis.

We have to ensure that those debates and that civic education are a whole approach. That we provide lifelong opportunities for civic engagement with debates on issues like the refugee crisis, but aren’t just insular, liberal echo-chambers for the privileged elite.

[We need debates that] seek genuinely to bridge the divide and include voices from local host-communities that may have genuine fears about competition for jobs, about the challenges of cultural diversity. And we need to ensure the university is a space for open dialogue, debate, discussion and inclusive education.

The PIE: Is it the role of higher education to go out and embrace the public?

AB: For the most part, in Europe, universities are public institutions. Their very mandate is not to serve a privileged elite, it’s to serve society.

But there’s also a very pragmatic reason why universities have to reach out beyond students who are simply there on merit. They have to reach out because the regulatory framework and the public will that sustains higher education’s mission relies upon a democratic mandate.

If the electorate loses patience with universities and loses patience with higher education as a project, governments will start to impose regulations that stymie and restrict what higher education can do.

We see that with student mobility. We see that with, rising tuition fees for students. If governments are going to continue to provide higher education as a public good, it has to have democratic buy-in.

That means it’s precisely the businesses of the universities to reach parts of the community that wouldn’t necessarily traditionally have gone to university.

“We continue to have higher education at the vanguard of the opportunities of globalisation”

The PIE: Your proposed a three-point plan for higher education to address protectionism. Can you talk more about societal cultural-exchange programs?

AB: I was an Erasmus student. I had an excellent year in Aix-en-Provence in France. I met a lot of international students and French students with an international outlook. But to my shame, as a 19-year-old, I didn’t spend a huge amount of time with people who were not liberal, outward-looking, and from a relatively elite educational background.

I think it’s important that where we have people moving across and between countries, we also ensure they have a deeper exposure to the community and society they’re living as part of. That they meet a variety of people from different socio-economic backgrounds, from different educational backgrounds. With a different sense of the world.

There’s also a huge opportunity that if we’ve got people moving across and between, rather than have them just see two university campuses in one country and another country, why shouldn’t we allow them and their presence to benefit a wider group?

Why shouldn’t the visiting academic also go and give a talk in the town hall?

Why shouldn’t an exchange with students going abroad allow them to also spend a period of time in a local small- and medium-sized enterprise?

Why shouldn’t it be that people going to a big city like London or universities like Oxford or Cambridge also spend time in provincial towns or villages in the surrounding areas?

The PIE: Are you hopeful that higher education can engage with the wider community?

AB: Higher education has to engage more broadly. What we see is that higher education politics is subordinated to migration politics. Politicians have other issues that they’re more concerned about. Rather than being battered around in the winds of broader politics, higher education needs to engage with those themes and ensure it’s inclusive in order to sustain an international outlook.

I’m optimistic that we can continue to internationalise; that we continue to have higher education at the vanguard of the opportunities of globalisation. That higher education can begin to take the steps to ensure that that’s an inclusive internationalisation that benefits as many people as possible and builds vertical as well as horizontal bridges.

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