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Middle Eastern Universities Should Open Their Doors to Refugees

Universities in countries with large refugee communities must overhaul their policies to address low refugee enrollment, writes higher education expert Hana Addam El-Ghali in Al-Fanar Media. Despite political barriers, she says, universities can make a big difference.

Written by Hana Addam El-Ghali Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Lebanon us university
American University of Beirut (AUB) alumni attend a special commencement ceremony at the university's campus in Beirut in 2010. AFP/ANWAR AMRO

Universities can’t combat the political problems that create barriers for refugee students, but they can change their own approach to refugee education to improve access and retain the refugee students they already enroll.

Universities in countries that host refugees can think differently about what they offer and how they offer it, adding modules for professional development and life skills rather than sticking to traditional undergraduate studies. Such changes will have the added benefit of helping all students.

Although the number of refugees in host countries within the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has been steady lately, enrollment patterns within tertiary education have varied. In some countries it has been increasing, such as in Turkey, where the ratio of the host population to the Syrian refugees is 1:25.

In other host countries it has been decreasing, such as in Lebanon, where the ratio of the host population to the Syrian refugees is 1:4, despite increased funds targeting these young people. A number of reasons may exist, such as interrupted education at levels below tertiary education.

But another reason for the changing demographics among Syrian refugees seeking tertiary education could be the structure of the institutions themselves, which typically offer traditional undergraduate and graduate studies. And this is where changes could make a big difference.

Millions of Syrians have been affected by war in their country since it began in 2011 – both internally displaced populations within Syria, and those who have fled to neighboring countries within the MENA region, mostly Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey.

Education within these host countries has been included in the humanitarian response to the crisis: International and regional conventions all recognize the right of refugees to education, some specifically referring to tertiary education. But reality reflects a different scenario because of national policies and politics within the host countries.

Article 22 of UNHCR’s 1951 Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees explicitly calls for equal access of refugees to elementary education, and in addition calls for the equitable treatment of refugees compared to other non-nationals at other levels of education.

Support for the education of refugees in host countries of the MENA region has been consistent at both primary and secondary levels, with 66 percent of school-age refugee children accessing formal and non-formal basic education.

However, little attention has been given to the limited participation of refugees in tertiary education. This is quite common in emergency situations where the education pipeline from primary to secondary to tertiary is shown to narrow, since opportunities become more limited for refugees as they progress through each level.

One of the requirements for admission into a local tertiary education institution is the refugee’s legal status, as it is a major challenge to obtain a valid residency in some of the host countries, such as Lebanon. That in turn limits admission to local universities.

Another challenge is the recognition of academic credentials and degrees by the host countries. In the Arab world, countries hold bilateral agreements for recognition of documents, but refugees nonetheless struggle to obtain authenticated copies of their certificates and transcripts, required by some host countries and local institutions. As such, many young refugees give up on getting an education at a local university, or choose to start their tertiary education all over again.

Finances also present a challenge for refugees seeking to access tertiary education. The number of scholarships offered to Syrian refugees by international organizations or local governments, like Turkey, has increased sharply. But prospective students who are refugees are often the breadwinners for their families, so taking time to study at university can mean they can’t support their family, even if they receive free tuition and a stipend.

Young refugees also face uncertainty about post-graduation employment in their country of asylum. Labor market participation of young refugees has been concentrated in the informal sector, leading to exploitation.

To encourage refugees to tackle such hurdles and believe that tertiary education really is worth the effort, it is imperative that local universities in host universities evolve into multi-dimensional institutions. Not only must they add to their traditional curricula, but they must add teaching modalities that go beyond on-campus offerings.

These changes should also include the introduction of dynamic pedagogical practices where the focus is no longer on the professor but rather on the needs of the learner through active, interactive and experiential learning modalities, where students learn on their own or from peers. Such practices are particularly important in the context of refugee tertiary education, as the students are not typical students. It is critical for institutions to evolve and be creative in what they have to offer and how they offer it.

For example, new skills and competencies may be introduced within the curriculum that is offered to Syrian refugee students, not only because of their specific needs as learners but also because of the prospects of employment that would enable them to change their realities of being a refugee.

Such competencies include information analysis, critical thinking, problem-solving, creativity and communication. In addition, developing students’ character to encourage their curiosity, sense of initiative, persistence, adaptability, ethical awareness and reasoning are equally essential for refugees. Obviously, emphasizing such traits will strengthen all students.

Developing good governance across universities in the MENA region would help develop institutions of tertiary education, particularly in areas of social responsibility and quality. Such changes would enable universities to become more competitive in an era with increasing demand for tertiary education. Many of the funds for supporting tertiary education among Syrian refugees can also provide support for the development of the universities that accommodate these refugees.

It is also important for local governments of host countries to explicitly develop new policies and procedures to address the needs of these new populations that have emerged. Existing procedures may not respond to the quickly changing needs of these populations as well as the nation’s citizens.

Most host countries in the MENA region treat Syrian refugee students as regular international students, although the reality is obviously different. This practice, in countries such as Lebanon and Jordan, puts pressure on Syrian students to deliver authenticated certificates or abandon their goal of continuing in higher education.

Finally, investing in the education of young Syrian refugees is an opportunity for empowerment among this population, equipping them with a critical consciousness for wise decisions, tools for better life choices and hope for them and others. Investing in tertiary education for refugees is not a luxury, but rather a necessity and a right.

Editor’s note: This commentary is based on a four-country case study commissioned by UNESCO and conducted by the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut.

This story was originally published on Al-Fanar Media and is reproduced here with permission.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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