In our third blog post for World Refugee Day, we learn why higher education is important to refugees and why this kind of provision deserves greater political and academic attention.
World Refugee Day marks a global recognition of those who have been forced to leave their homes to find sanctuary abroad; a day when individual citizens and the international community reaffirm their support for resolving protracted conflicts and advancing the situation of refugees. Yet, it is only in the last decade that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) started prioritising education as a part of development, with primary and secondary education as the focus. Reasons for the lack of attention to education stem from UNHCR’s lack of capacity in this field  and host governments’ preference to treat refugee situations as temporary phenomena.
Considering that the majority of the world’s refugees are in protracted exile – exile for at least five years – and that the average duration of exile was 17 years in 2003 , I would argue that support for primary and secondary education alone is insufficient. Tertiary education is a key development need for refugees, and deserves greater political and academic attention. By tertiary (or higher) education, I refer to degree programmes at universities and colleges as well as vocational programmes at technical schools.
High unmet demand
Given the often dire socio-economic situations affecting refugees, readers might question whether there is a demand among refugees for higher education. For every refugee UNHCR (through the Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative) sponsors for a university degree, it rejects between 10 and 30 applicants; from 1992 – 2007, it funded approximately 5,000 refugees . Aside from UNHCR, a number of national and international organisations help refugees attain higher education. United Tertiary Refugee Students has supported 1,300 refugees in South Africa alone, since its founding in 2004 .
These figures cover refugees receiving official support at universities. More refugees support themselves and enroll in colleges and technical schools. More still leave their studies or do not enroll owing to financial constraints. In its 2012-2016 Education Strategy, UNHCR pledged to double the number of refugees in tertiary education through increased scholarships and bridging programmes; however, given the high level of demand, it is not clear whether this commitment will be sufficient.
Why tertiary education?
Demand for tertiary education is high among refugees because it can facilitate their integration into host societies and reintegration in origin countries and enhances their agency. Here, agency refers to how people take action in different environments based on what they have experienced in the past, what they believe is possible for the future, and how they evaluate the past and future given present constraints .
Drawing on interviews with refugee students in South Africa, refugee education advocate Elizabeth Lanzi Mazzocchini argues that many of them learn skills they know to be in high demand in the local labour market. Furthermore, those with local degrees who are unable to find work matching their qualifications remain more employable than their counterparts with foreign diplomas.
In terms of reintegration, higher education enables refugees to be active in the rebuilding of the social, political and economic institutions of their origin countries, assuming they return. Hence, post-genocide, Rwanda targeted higher education as the primary mechanism of development, dedicating to it one-third of its education budget .
From a research perspective, paying closer attention to refugees in tertiary education is important because it may reveal how agency affects displacement patterns. In forced migration research, refugee movements are often portrayed as aberrant behaviour, a sole symptom of conflict, and refugees as lacking any capabilities or aspirations. A reason for this is the fear, on the part of some over-zealous refugee researchers and practitioners, that any recognition of calculated decision-making might undermine refugee status. In the case of tertiary education, the fear is that refugees would be unfairly branded as “disingenuous” and trying to access education markets.
However, studies on mobility in conflict settings in Afghanistan, Mozambique, and the Democratic Republic of Congo have shown that people exhibit considerable agency in the timing, distance, direction and frequency of movement; the degree of integration in the host society; and whether and how people repatriate . We also know that education is one of the life-events wherein mobility often plays a role. Hence, examining refugees in tertiary education could shed light on how refugees’ education trajectories shape the circumstances of their movements towards asylum and resettlement countries.
The role of UNU-MERIT
Considering the importance of higher education for refugee development and research, doctoral research is being carried out at UNU-MERIT on how tertiary education impacts forced migration processes. This research is multi-sited and will be conducted in Kenya, Uganda and South Africa based on these countries’ different refugee hosting policies, proximities to conflict, and differentiated tertiary education sectors. Fieldwork should begin in early 2015.
The research hopes to reveal different displacement patterns and refugees’ deliberative decision-making. By looking at tertiary education, it also seeks to understand the fuller scope of refugee agency, different types of agency, and the ability of agency to change over the course of refugees’ movements. Lastly, it aims to uncover explanatory mechanisms of how features of agency related to higher education interact with structural constraints related to conflict, geography, or socio-economic crisis.
 Dryden-Peterson, S. 2010. “The Politics of Higher Education for Refugees in a Global Movement for Primary Education.” Refuge, 27, p 10.
 Loescher, G. & Milner, J. 2005. “The long road home: Protracted refugee situations in Africa.” Survival, 47, p. 154 citing UNHCR, “Protracted Refugee Situations,” UNHCR, Standing Committee, 30thMeeting, 10 June 2004, EC/54/SC/CRP.14.
 Dryden-Peterson, S. 2011. “Refugee Education: A Global Review.” Geneva: Policy Development and Evaluation Service, UNHCR, p. 52.
 CEI. 2014. United for Tertiary Refugee Students. Washington, D.C.: Center for Education Innovations, Results for Development Institute. Available: http://www.educationinnovations.org/program/unity-tertiary-refugee-students.
 Emirbayer, M. & Mische, A. 1998. What is agency? 1. American journal of sociology, 103, p. 970.
 Dryden-Peterson, 2010: 11
 Monsutti, A. 2008. “Afghan Migratory Strategies and the Three Solutions to the Refugee Problem.” Refugee Survey Quarterly, 27, 58-73;Lubkemann, S. 2000. “The Transformation of Transnationality among Mozambican Migrants in South Africa.” Canadian Journal of African Studies/La Revue canadienne des études africaines, 34, 41-63;Bakewell, O. & Bonfiglio, A. 2013. “Moving Beyond Conflict: Re-framing mobility in the African Great Lakes region.” IMI Working Paper Series. Oxford: International Migration Institute, University of Oxford.
UN Photo / IRIN; M.Garten; C H W Redenius