Reimagining education for refugees post-pandemic

Syrian refugee children sit inside a makeshift school tent as a teacher conducts English lessons during a visit by UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake to the Syrian refugees camp in Kfar Zabad village at Bekaa valley, eastern Lebanon, November 1, 2013. International donors must do more to help Lebanon absorb a flood of refugees straining its schools and public services, the head of the United Nations children's fund UNICEF said. Picture taken November 1, 2013. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi (LEBANON - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS SOCIETY EDUCATION) - GM1E9B31M8L01

The global pandemic has made it harder for refugees and asylum seekers to access education. Image: REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

Marie Penelope Nezurugo
Research and Analysis Specialist, World Economic Forum
Nellie Kamau
Incoming Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs Candidate, University of British Columbia
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  • Pre-existing operational and logistical constraints coupled with the effects of the pandemic have made it harder for refugees and asylum seekers to access education.
  • World Refugee Day presents an opportunity for sector players to reimagine education approaches that will ensure continued access for refugee scholars.
  • The Forum’s YGL Initiatives and institutions like World University Service of Canada and MasterCard Foundation support refugees in transitioning to tertiary education.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led directly to prolonged and unpredictable school programming with the closure of schools, universities, technical and vocational training institutes. Pre-existing operational and logistical constraints coupled with the effects of a global pandemic have made it even harder for refugees and asylum seekers to access education. World Refugee Day on 20 June presents an ideal opportunity for sector players to reimagine education approaches that will ensure continued access for refugee scholars in line with SDG 4 (Accessing Quality Education).

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Prior to the pandemic, refugees had limited access to higher education opportunities with a 3% rate of access to higher education versus the 37% global rate. Some of these stem from:

  • Regulatory environments that hinder enrolment;
  • High cost of education;
  • Limited proficiency in the language of instruction in the host community.

Bridging this gap is a global priority in accordance with the Global Compact for Refugees, which advocates for the inclusion of refugees in national education systems and promotes systemic planning during crises and protracted displacement. With increased uncertainties due to the evolving pandemic, and restructuring of budgetary allocations, the 3% rate of access to higher education could sink to a historic low. A multistakeholder refugee response framework is necessary to increase access to quality education for refugees, opening up better economic opportunities that improve their livelihoods.

Global number of children and adolescents who do not achieve minimum proficiency levels in reading, by age group, region and sex
Image: UNESCO Institute for Statistics

Below is a highlight of some institutions and World Economic Forum Young Global Leader Initiatives that have consistently supported refugees in transitioning to tertiary education through innovative programming for the students, during and after their university careers:

1. World University Service of Canada (WUSC)

WUSC is working to create a world where all young people can grow up in safe, secure environments, and can learn, work and participate in their country’s development. Its Student Refugee Program has supported over 2,000 young refugees to advance their education in safe and supportive environments on campuses across Canada since 1978.

At McGill University, for example, fundraising for the SRP is done through a non-opt-outable fee of 50 cents established in 1986 and collected from all undergraduate and graduate students. WUSC McGill has said that the SRP “gives two students the chance to study at McGill and get an education that they otherwise wouldn’t have access to each year.” Subsequent referenda, with the most recent in 2021, raised the contribution to $4/student/semester, which will support up to five incoming student refugees per year.

Reflecting on McGill’s leadership on the impact of this program, the Principal and Vice-​Chancellor of McGill University, Suzanne Fortier, points out that: “Providing accessibility to high-quality education is among McGill University’s core values. Since the inception of the World University Service of Canada Student Refugee Program at our university, 58 refugee students from countries around the world have been able to pursue their studies with us. This initiative is one among many others at McGill that opens doors for those facing unimaginable hurdles. When given the chance, we know that there is no limit to what these students will go on to accomplish.”

2. MasterCard Foundation

The MasterCard Foundation has been purposeful about designing participatory curriculum approaches for refugees and displaced youth, and recently instituted its Refugee Strategy through the Displaced and Refugee Youth Enabling Environment Mechanism (DREEM) project. DREEM will contribute to the Foundation’s commitment to meaningfully include refugee and displaced youth in their Scholars and Young Africa Works projects. According to MCF’s website, a recent study of bridging programs in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya that support access to higher education and employment opportunities for displaced youth, refugees and internally displaced persons, will provide insights that will inform the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program approach to higher education opportunities for displaced youth. Through these strategic resolutions, it is expected that MCF will exceed its pledge to commit 25% of its scholarships to refugees and displaced youth.

One beneficiary of the DREEM project being developed by WUSC and MCF targeting refugees and displaced communities is Bior L. Ajak, a Mastercard Foundation Scholar. “The Mastercard Foundation scholarship was a life-changing opportunity that came at a time when I was facing a lot of uncertainty and anxiety about my future. Higher education is not accessible to refugees in Kenya, except through scholarships. Most refugees cannot even afford secondary education. These barriers, among others, contribute to the cycle of poverty among the refugee communities. The Mastercard Foundation has been very intentional about its scholars’ programme, holding continuous consultations with the scholars on ways to create more impact. The MCF supports us beyond university by facilitating transitions to the world of work, and providing financial support to scholars' initiatives that support local communities. I am honoured to be one of the members of the Youth Advisory Committee on this project, providing the refugee perspective to policy and socio-economic inclusion.”

3. Community of Young Global Leaders

Among the key barriers to accessing higher education opportunities highlighted by the UNHCR are the parallel education institutions in refugee camps that are not managed by the government, leading to services which are less predictable, sustainable and often of lower quality. To support education and upskilling the community in Kakuma refugee camp, the World Economic Forum’s Kakuma Refugee Settlement Project (Kakuma Project) was established in 2018 when a group of YGLs embarked on an Impact Expedition to Kakuma – a learning journey that enabled them to better understand the camp’s pressing needs as well as impact opportunities that they could address through the power of collective networks.

In her role as President of the International Publishers Association (IPA), YGL Bodour Al Qasimi leads the Africa Publishing Innovation Fund (APIF) initiative, which disburses $200,000 a year to African projects supporting literacy. In 2020, the APIF gave $10,000 to a project called Exposing Hope, which is building a new library for secondary school pupils living in Kakuma. Kakuma camp is home to refugees from DRC Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia and Uganda, among others; and the fund will add to the efforts done yearly by other organizations working hard to feed the camp with books and to allowing young children, mature students and teachers to stay up-to-date and knowledgeable about evolving topics and updated knowledge.


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Breaking cycles of entrenched poverty

Today, the world is witnessing record levels of human displacement in large part due to political instability and the growing impacts of climate change. This increasingly leaves a large segment of the global population without the mechanisms to continuously access education. Refugees are among some of the world’s most vulnerable populations and are often trapped in cycles of entrenched poverty.

Higher education institutions have developed programmes that reach and support refugees effectively for decades. Their student refugee programmes send a powerful message on how higher education opportunities and refugee resettlement can be combined, and – perhaps even more so – begin to paint a picture of what a collective response to expand quality education for refugees can look like. A multistakeholder response framework is necessary to ensure this continuous provision of quality education and in ensuring that we heal, learn and shine.

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