Agata Lambrechts is a First Year PhD student in the Department of Education, University of York, supervised by Dr Paul Wakeling.  Her research is concerned with the access to and experience of the higher education by young refugees and asylum seekers in the European Union.  Here, she reflects on a seminar, organised jointly by the Society for Research of Higher Education and the International Centre for Higher Education Management, on 30 September 2015.  SRHE is a UK-based international learned society concerned to advance understanding of higher education, providing support to global communities of researchers and providing space for exploration, discussion and dissemination of research knowledge and ideas.  ICHEM is a major interdisciplinary research centre established in 1994 in the School of Management at the University of Bath

Chaired by Helen Perkins, the SRHE Director, the seminar was delivered by two distinguished speakers and followed by a lively and fruitful discussion by all participants.
The first speaker, Professor Rajani Najdoo, Director of ICHEM, shared her views on the role of universities in solving the many major issues facing humankind, including the destruction of the environment, rising inequality, and in particular, the current refugee crisis.  In her presentation entitled ‘Beyond National Competition: Higher Education for Global Wellbeing, she criticised universities sole focus on contribution to the economic and social development in their own countries and the ‘paralysis’ in engaging with the GLOBAL wellbeing.  She listed two reasons for this lack of engagement: first, she said, universities are under the pressure of market fundamentalism, constantly forced to compete for applicants, achieve high places in the global rankings, produce research involved with business interests and accrue financial surplus.  Secondly, universities are affected by what she called an ‘unhealthy competition fetish’ – the common believe that competition will solve all the problems of higher education – improve wellbeing, the quality of programmes and even student satisfaction.  This is reinforced by governments funding being linked to universities’ status.  She spoke of the need for not only countries, but also universities to work together in regional and international partnerships, beyond the West versus the rest cultural binary, to lead initiatives for global wellbeing.  She called for submissions to ICHEM’s new facility within their website ( which describes and celebrates trailblazer initiatives, arguing that ‘to turn the spotlight away from the competition fetish to collaborations promoting global wellbeing is both illuminating and inspirational’.

The econd speaker, UNHCR’s Education Officer, Mr Johannes Tarvainen, in the talk entitled ‘The Refugee Crisis: the Contribution of Higher Education to Strengthening Communities, gave an overview of the current refugee crisis and UNCHR’s response to the educational challenges  which it has created.  According to the UNHCR’s data, conflicts in Syria, central Africa and South Sudan fuelled the increase in the number of people living as refugees from war or persecution, which in 2014 exceeded 50 million for the first time since World War II (this includes  38.2 million of internally displaced people and 19.5 million of refugees worldwide).  51% of all refugees are under 18 years old.  45% of refugees live in protracted settings, being displaced for 5 years or more, with the average period of displacement lasting 20 years. Notwithstanding some media reports, ALL refugees are not coming to Europe.  In fact, 86% of refugees are hosted in developing countries. 

Although not often discussed – as it may not be the worst aspect of the crisis – it is accepted that displacement disrupts enrolment in higher education.  Indeed, despite the considerable demand for higher education both among recently displaced and protracted refugees, less than 1% of young refugees globally have access to HE opportunities.  The barriers they face include problems with recognition of prior studies, loss of documents from country of origin, lack of access to host country documents, financial, language and societal barriers, and lack of accessibility of information. The UNHCR has adopted an Education Strategy (2012-2016), imposing as one of its objectives that ‘More young refugees will follow higher education courses’ (Objective 4,  This is because they recognise that higher education for refugees serves not only individuals, but also communities and societies – it leads to: professional development and self-reliance ensuring social, economic and gender equality; peaceful co-existence between refugee and host communities; reinforced protection of children and young people – enrolment and achievement in primary and secondary school is improved by young people observing their older peers in the communities who are studying at HE level; and development of skill-sets for solutions to refugee situations.

Mr Tarvainen concluded with some suggestions for how universities and their partners can engage with the issues, at the same time opening the floor to seminars participants, asking for their proposals and suggestions for individual projects, co-operations and policy change.  The main point he asked everyone to remember was that any initiatives have to take into account specific circumstances of refugees.  He mentioned the need for language, academic and psychosocial support, and asked for communication with government offices and other actors before setting up any scholarship programmes that may affect the protection and legal status of the refugee students.  Universities have to consider whether the scholarship is sustainable to cover a whole degree cycle of a student, what legal status the student will have, whether they will have the right to work and what their prospects will be after graduation.

Questions & Answers 

The presentations by the speakers were followed with a questions and answers session that transformed into an open discussion between all participants, which included those originating from Lebanon, Syria, Africa, Bosnia, Vietnam and various European countries, representatives from various HE institutions and governmental bodies, and those who were refugees themselves.

Suggestions were made to offer blended and online learning and to offer cross-border credit accumulation.  It was recommended that Western universities set up partnerships with Jordan and Lebanon institutions (these countries host the majority of the refugees from Syria), to ensure more sustainable higher education solutions.  It was also put forward that skills and experience of those refugees who are already settled in the UK should be capitalised on, as they are often best placed to offer practical support to the new arrivals.  A need was identified for a platform to make information about different initiatives in European countries available in a co-ordinated manner, in countries where refugees currently reside, and it was suggested that admissions requirements could be agreed across the HE sector to be changed or waived and the intellectual ability of the refugee applicants could be assessed on individual basis instead, as is often already done by HE institutions in the case of mature applicants admissions. Finally, both student and academic activism were called on as the most powerful drivers for institutional action.

Speaker Biographies

Johannes Tarvainen is Education Officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), based in the Division of International Protection in Geneva. Based in Headquarters, he provides guidance to UNHCR’s higher education policy and programmatic response in 41 countries across Africa, Middle East, Asia and Latin America. His previous assignments with UNHCR were in Kenya where he worked on the protection of refugees and stateless persons and in Rwanda where he coordinated education programmes for urban and camp-based refugees from early childhood to higher education.

Rajani Naidoo is Professor of Higher Education Management and Director of the International Centre for Higher Education Management in the School of Management at the University of Bath. Before this she was an inaugural faculty member at a higher education institution that aimed to contribute to the transformation of apartheid higher education in South Africa. She is co-editor of a book series of global higher education (Palgrave) and on the executive editorial board of the British Journal of Sociology of Education.

The event has since been reported by The Guardian in an article which also mentions any initiatives already undertaken by British universities:

The University of York have also recently announced a package of funded initiative to help refugees:

What role do you think universities can/ should play in dealing with the current refugee crisis?