Work together to ensure refugees can access HE, UN adviser says

Refugee participation in tertiary education rises from 1 to 6 per cent in four years but much more needs to be done, congress hears

May 31, 2023
Source: Helmy H. Alsagaff

The international community needs to coordinate better and act more coherently to ensure more refugees are able to attend universities, according to a senior United Nations adviser.

Khaled Khalifa, who represents the UN’s refugee agency to countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), said the world was at risk of missing its target of ensuring 15 per cent of refugees are in higher education by 2030 unless institutions work together.

More coordination was key to ensuring progress across all the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Mr Khalifa told Times Higher Education’s Global Sustainable Development Congress, hosted by King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia. “If we move as we are moving now, I tell you honestly we will never meet the SDGs,” he said.

The targets include increased participation of women in higher education, more scholarships for students from poorer countries and raising the number of qualified teachers, among others.

To achieve the goal on refugees, the world needs to learn the lessons of recent years, which have seen refugee participation in tertiary education rise from 1 per cent in 2019 to 6 per cent in 2023, Mr Khalifa added.

Many refugees are displaced to poor countries with few resources to improve their access to universities, meaning wealthier countries need to work together to share the burden, Mr Khalifa said. He noted that countries in the GCC, which includes all the Arabian Peninsula except Yemen, “have many large education institutes” but they are “working in solitude” when it comes to refugee access.

UNHCR figures show the number of refugees at universities in the Middle East and North Africa has risen from a few hundred in 2015 to almost 7,000 in 2021.

“We need somehow to build a network for good in the education system to make sure all the big organisations that are in the region here are cooperating towards the same goal,” he said. While he called for “concerted efforts” from the mostly Sunni Muslim, oil-rich monarchies, he noted that access alone would not be enough to give refugees equal treatment in many host countries.

“It will be very naive to think that the education of refugees can actually prepare them for equal opportunities at life. Either their certificates are not acknowledged where they are because they travelled from places where the education was in a different language, or they do not have the documentation in the first place,” he said, giving the example of the Rohingya, an ethnic group that fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh to escape genocide, many of whom left on foot with little warning.

He said host countries’ investment in refugee education would benefit students and wider society, because refugee graduates would help economic growth. At the same time, higher education would boost the “morale” of displaced people who often lose some sense of their own identity.

Those trapped in camps without a way to study towards a better future could become a problem for their hosts, he added. “If we do not invest in education and give some hope to young people it is actually a time bomb.”

UN member states will meet in New York in September to take stock of progress on the SDGs, including those on refugee education, while the Global Refugee Forum in December will offer a similar opportunity in Geneva, Mr Khalifa said.

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