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Orienting Readers

This page has been created within the CAS Higher Education in Emergencies, https://www.unige.ch/formcont/en/courses/he-emergencies , in March 2023 by the entire intake, in a joint collaborative effort. Contributing authors are Ahmad Fawzi Shamsi; Alice Ndirangu; Jumana Basil Rashad Jabr; Ndamyo Ngosi Msofi; and Sarah Paul. The course was under the supervision of Barbara Class.

Defining Higher Education in Emergencies

Higher Education in Emergencies (HEiE) is an emerging term in the Education sector with different meanings to different players. According to the World Bank “Higher education, also known as tertiary education in some countries, refers to all post-secondary education, including both public and private universities, colleges, technical training institutes, and vocational schools”. This definition is interesting since it embraces the concept of education as a continuum showing how much education is a process in which each stage builds upon the previous one producing a mutually reinforcing effect (Higher Education in Emergencies (rrm-online.org).

Therefore, Higher Education in Emergencies is about providing education at the tertiary level be it in universities or vocational schools, and technical colleges during natural disasters, conflicts, refugee situations, or other humanitarian crises that disrupt or threaten the normal functioning of educational institutions or any other emergencies. HEiE promotes the right to education for all by enabling them to acquire knowledge, skills, and qualifications in rebuilding communities. Higher education unleashes innovation and entrepreneurial skills that are important for economic activity and job creation elements critical for stability during times of reconstruction and for longer-term sustainable development. Because education sustains life by offering safe spaces for learning and by making it possible to identify and support seriously affected individuals, particularly children and youth. As studies clearly show, education mitigates the psychosocial impact of conflict and disasters by providing a sense of normalcy, stability, structure and hope for the future. Quality education can save lives by providing physical protection from the dangers and exploitation of a crisis environment. In this regard, higher education plays a vital role in saving lives and giving a sense of hope for the future in the context of emergencies. It is higher education that will produce the leaders and skilled workforce that countries need to move forward, in particular after crisis and conflict (http://www.globalplatformforsyrianstudents.org/index.php/higher-education-in-emergencies).

Example of a HEIE Context: Refugees

The 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees defines a refugee as anyone who due to a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or unwilling to use the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality but being outside the country where he used to live; or who, not having a nationality but being outside. A refugee is someone who had to leave their home country because of violence, persecution, or war. They can't or won't go back to their home country because they are afraid of being persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, political views, or because they are part of a certain social group.

International law, including the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, recognizes that refugees have certain rights and protections, like the right to ask for asylum and not be sent back to their home country against their will. Refugees have to deal with a lot of hard things, like losing their homes and belongings, being separated from their families, and having to start over in a new country. The international community has a duty to protect and help refugees, as well as to try to find long-term solutions to the conflicts and crises that force people to leave their homes.

Refugee emergency situations are times when people have to leave their homes because of war, persecution, or other kinds of violence. In these situations, people don't have enough of the things they need, like food, shelter, and medical care. This can have a big effect on education, even at the college level. Refugee emergencies are complicated situations that happen when a lot of people have to leave their homes because of violence, war, or persecution. There are a lot of different things that lead to refugee crises around the world, but often they have to do with political instability, economic inequality, and environmental factors.

Armed conflict is one of the main reasons why people have to flee their homes. Because of the ongoing fighting in Syria and South Sudan, millions of people have been forced to leave their homes. Many of them have gone to neighboring countries to find safety. Millions of people have also been forced to leave their homes because of the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In addition to conflict, the DRC has to deal with a number of environmental problems, such as deforestation, soil erosion, and climate change, which make it harder to get food and force people to move.

Another reason why there are refugee crises is that people are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views. For example, the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh had to leave their homes in Myanmar because the Myanmar government was trying to hurt them. In the same way, the ongoing conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region has forced over 2.2 million people to leave their homes. Many of them went to neighboring Sudan to escape violence and persecution. Natural disasters like floods, droughts, and hurricanes can also cause people to have to leave their homes quickly. These disasters can force people to move because they lose their homes, jobs, and ways to get food and water. Chad, Cameroon, Niger, and Nigeria are all in the Lake Chad Basin, which has been hit by a severe drought that has forced more than 2.4 million people to move. Lastly, economic problems like high unemployment, inflation, and poverty can also make it hard for refugees to find safe places to live. For example, because of the ongoing economic crisis in Venezuela, millions of people have left the country in search of better jobs and easier access to things like food and medicine. In the same way, Zimbabwe's ongoing economic crisis has caused thousands of people to leave the country in search of better jobs in neighboring countries.

The global causes of refugee crises are complicated and multifaceted. Knowing these issues is critical for establishing effective answers to refugees' needs. International organizations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) work to offer refugees with humanitarian aid and support. However, long-term solutions necessitate political and economic stability, as well as sustainable development. Higher education is sometimes neglected as a non-essential demand in the aftermath of refugee crises. Higher education, on the other hand, is important in allowing refugees to reconstruct their lives and contribute to the growth of their host communities. A range of actions are required to guarantee that refugees have access to higher education options.

Refugees' Access to Higher Education: Creating opportunities for higher education within refugee camps is one of the most crucial actions required to assure refugee access to higher education. Also, there is a need to improve access to higher education in the host country. The Jesuit Worldwide Learning program established the Higher Education at the Margins initiative, which provides degree programs to refugees in Kenya, Malawi, and Afghanistan. This initiative has provided refugees with the opportunity to pursue higher education, which is an important first step toward rebuilding their life.

Financial Assistance to Refugees: Higher education expenditures, such as tuition and textbooks, can be a big obstacle for refugees who are already trying to make ends meet. Financial assistance in the form of scholarships or grants can help refugees gain access to higher education possibilities. The Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative (DAFI) is one example of a program that offers scholarships to refugees to assist them pursue higher education. This initiative has provided refugees with the opportunity to pursue higher education, which is vital for them to reconstruct their lives and contribute to the growth of their host communities.

Building Refugee Capacity: Higher education institutions can play an important role in empowering refugees to contribute to the development of their host communities. This might include training entrepreneurship, leadership, and conflict resolution skills, as well as promoting civic engagement and community development. The University of Geneva's "Geneva Global Goals Innovation Challenge" is one example of a program that aims to create capacity in refugees by providing entrepreneurial training. This program has given refugees the skills they need to create their own enterprises and contribute to the growth of their host communities.

Refugee Psychosocial Support: Many refugees have undergone trauma and may require psychosocial help to participate in higher education. Higher education institutions can help refugees by providing psychosocial support services such as counselling and mentoring. The Jusoor Mentoring Program is one example of a program that provides mentorship and psychosocial support to Syrian refugees. This program has enabled refugees to overcome their trauma and pursue higher education, which is crucial in allowing them to reconstruct their lives.

This section uses the following references:

Digitalization and Higher Education in Emergencies

The challenges encountered during emergencies, such as wars or natural disasters lead to the disclosure of the educational institutions, which leads to an educational gap in society, especially when taking much time. Consequently, technology has become an alternative solution that may enable education [1]. Digitalization represents a good solution that may enable learners of getting access to the knowledge needed for assisting them in their higher education. The recent literature includes a mass body of studies that examined the use of digitalization of education. These studies investigated different perspectives of digitalization in education during emergencies, such as implications [2], strategies [3], and effects [4].

Despite the wide studies that assured the importance of finding solutions that can facilitate the pedagogical process, much of the attention was on pre-university education rather than higher education [5]. This has led to a gap in society since higher education is quite important in the long term as it is responsible for providing society with the needed labor at all levels.

Although the studies in the literature focus on K-12 education rather than higher education (citation), several attempts have been made to bridge the higher education gap during emergencies.

1. University of the People: it is considered the first non-profit accredited university in the USA. It offers different programs for free, where students pay for their exams only. Yet, it offers scholarships for students coming from countries in an emergency. In coordination with Foundation Hoffmann, refugees and asylum-seekers are offered scholarships to proceed with their university studies, being associate or bachelor’s degree. Consequently, refugees are offered the chance to receive a recognized higher education degree without the need for attending on campus.[6]

2. Coursera: in 2016, Coursera, in cooperation with 30 partners, launched the Coursera Refugee Initiative to offer free transformational knowledge to refugees all over the world, which eventually reached tens of thousands of students from more than 100 countries [7]. Prospective candidates for this program are offered access to certain courses that strengthen their knowledge about varied fields, such as data analysis, business, computer science, and others. Although the courses offered are certified by accredited universities, many of them may not count as a university degree. Rather, it is more a source of knowledge that can enrich the participants’ experience.

3. Kiron: it is an initiative aiming to equip refugees in Germany, Lebanon, and Jordan, which are basically working with Syrian refugees. It also offers online education services to refugees all over the world. The initiative aims to equip refugee learners with courses in order to be ready for the job market in cooperation with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) from educational providers as well as Open Educational Resources (OERs).[8] As courses may not grant refugees with a higher education certificate, Kiron, in cooperation with some partnering universities, started offering some refugees, who succeed in the courses offered, the chance to switch to a partner university and receive an accredited bachelor’s degree certificate[9].

This section uses the following references:

  • [1] Crompton, H., Burke, D., Jordan, K., & Wilson, S. W. (2021). Learning with technology during emergencies: A systematic review of K‐12 education. British Journal of Educational Technology, 52(4), 1554-1575.
  • [2] Williamson, B., Eynon, R., & Potter, J. (2020). Pandemic politics, pedagogies and practices: digital technologies and distance education during the coronavirus emergency. Learning, Media and Technology, 45(2), 107-114.
  • [3] Appolloni, A., Colasanti, N., Fantauzzi, C., Fiorani, G., & Frondizi, R. (2021). Distance learning as a resilience strategy during Covid-19: An analysis of the Italian context. Sustainability, 13(3), 1388.
  • [4] Beardsley, M., Albó, L., Aragón, P., & Hernández‐Leo, D. (2021). Emergency education effects on teacher abilities and motivation to use digital technologies. British Journal of Educational Technology, 52(4), 1455-1477.
  • [5] Milton, S., & Milton, S. (2018). Higher education in emergencies. Higher Education and Post-Conflict Recovery, 121-139.
  • [6] https://www.uopeople.edu/tuition-free/scholarships/syrian-refugee-scholarship/
  • [7] https://www.coursera.org/refugees
  • [8] https://kiron.ngo/about-us
  • [9] https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kiron_Open_Higher_Education

Connected Learning

In a world of global interconnection and rapid change, effective learning is lifelong and integrated into the real world of work, civic engagement, and social participation. Learners no longer want to just bank knowledge and skills from school and wait to apply them to a world of work later in life, they want an approach to educational reform that recognizes learning as an ongoing process, connected to a diverse and evolving ecosystem of learning resources, institutions, communities, and outcomes (Freire, 1970).

Connected Learning is an innovative form of higher education that uses information technology to combine face-to-face and online learning. It enables students living in remote areas to connect with top universities and to exchange knowledge globally. Since 2010, over 25,000 refugee learners in 23 countries have participated in Connected Learning programs globally. Connected learning is constantly growing, connecting humanitarian, academic, and development actors across the globe. Students use information communication technology (ICT), which permits learning to be more flexible as it is not limited by time or geography, unlike traditional higher education. This method enables learning to be more interactive and can provide access to education for a large number of students in different parts of the world at low cost. These connected learning environments ideally embody values of equity, social belonging and participation. Connected learning environments are generally characterized by a sense of shared purpose, a focus on production, and openly networked infrastructures and its therefore relevant and perhaps timely category bringing together diverse efforts addressing refugee higher education.

The virtual teaching methods employed can involve real-time interaction between instructor and students, such as video-conferencing or live chats, or non-real time interactions, such as posting on discussion boards or learning from videotaped lectures. The use of social media and other internet platforms facilitates a more informal interaction between students and their peers and between students and their instructors, which complements their formal learning. However While connected learning offers a valuable narrative in bringing such higher initiatives together, more nuanced conceptual, theoretical, and methodological work is needed especially looking at connected learning in higher education with refugees, although connected learning is commendable and need to be scaled up, a concerted, contextualized and informed strategy appears to be still lacking, especially one that brings multiple stakeholders across sectors to work together ,there is need for inclusive policies to target refugee students, not as an act of charity, but an issue of social justice and that will ultimately benefit all students and enhance education.

Throughout the process, the voices and demands of refugee students themselves need to be heard, prioritized, and education developed and delivered in partnership with them. Only then can learning becoming genuinely connected, personalized and transformative Flexibility is needed in admitting and supporting refugees throughout the process where the higher education sector, in particular national institutions develop tools that allow assessment of qualifications and experience, without documentation, and where knowledge and potential are prioritized over qualifications, nationality or race. Only then can refugee students stand a chance on an equal footing. This cannot be done without a genuine desire to include, without prejudice.

This section uses the following references:

  • El-Ghali H and Ghosn E (2019) ‘Connected Learning in Lebanon’, Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut and UNHCR Lebanon
  • Cerna, L. (2019). Refugee Education: integration models and Practices in OECD Countries.
  • UNHCR (2014) Roundtable Report on Connected Higher Learning Programmes for Refugees bit.ly/UNHCR-Connected-Learning-2014
  • UNESCO (2018) Fulfilling the right to education for refugees and undocumented migrants.
  • UNHCR (2018a) DAFI 2018: Refugee Student Voices-Annual Report.
  • WENR (2015). The importance of higher education for Syrian refugees. http://wenr.wes.org/2015/12/the-importance-of-higher-education-for-syrian-refugees


UNHCR considers education as a basic right, “one that is vital in restoring hope and dignity to people driven from their homes.”

Unfortunately, higher education is often a luxury for vulnerable people and for those who have been displaced. With emergencies creating more vulnerable peoples, more refugees and displaced persons than ever, we must find innovative ways to provide learning opportunities for those in emergencies.

Evidently, providing higher education in emergencies is not an easy task. Based on many educators` practices, below are some recommendations outlined for policy makers and for higher education institutions to consider in supporting higher education in emergencies:

  • Mainstream programs, so that all targeted people are an implicit part of the target audience.
  • Consider ways of innovation in higher education. 10 ways to innovate in higher education in emergencies, By Lauren Parater, Associate Innovation Engagement Officer July 3, 2015/ https://reliefweb.int/report/world/10-ways-innovate-higher-education-emergencies
  • Engage with national institutions to share experiences and tackle the tough questions surrounding refugees` or other targeted groups` support in all different areas.
  • Get accreditation for digital programs so that higher education institutes can cooperate and connect across the world in delivering education where it is needed the most.
  • Reach out to (inter)national decision makers and stakeholders to act as an advocate for the importance of higher education in emergencies and for raising awareness about the need to boost higher education opportunities for young people caught up in crisis due to conflict, persecution or natural disasters.
  • Waive tuition fees and make fees affordable for all by introducing different kinds of scholarships and facilitating payments.
  • Introduce different kinds of higher education degrees such as micro and nano degrees.
  • Further reflection on the international responsibility of protecting and rebuilding higher education in emergencies should continue. Exploring ways of making the international community endorse a call to action or a set of principles or hopefully commit to set up a rapid response mechanism for higher education in emergencies are questions that need to be further discussed and explored.
  • This section uses the following references: