Tertiary education is an essential part of the education continuum. Graduates of tertiary education programmes have the best chances of self-reliance and resilience, and act as leaders and role models in their communities. Access to tertiary education serves as a strong incentive for students to continue and complete their education at the primary and secondary levels.
Tertiary education programmes are typically designed to provide students with academic and/or professional knowledge, skills and competencies. These programmes are based on theory, research and practical components and often include a specific focus on civic engagement and/or community development.
It is believed that tertiary education can make a substantive and lasting contribution to the lives and livelihoods of those who are forcibly displaced. It has been shown to play a role in protecting refugee youth and young adults and other people affected by emergencies. It can prepare them and their communities for potentially attaining sustainable solutions in a variety of situations of forced displacement. It also fosters the development of critical thinking, knowledge production, and information literacy skills that contribute to post-conflict reconstruction, promote social, economic, and gender equality and empower refugee communities. Tertiary education has the potential to nurture a generation of future change-makers who can take the lead in identifying and accessing solutions for refugees, and are able to contribute to the peaceful development of their host countries for the duration of their displacement.
Defining Tertiary Education
According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, ‘tertiary education builds on secondary education, providing learning activities in specialised fields of education. It aims at learning at a high level of complexity and specialisation. Tertiary education includes what is commonly understood as academic education, but is broader than that because it also includes advanced vocational or professional education’ (TVET).
Tertiary education systems include institutions such as universities, colleges, polytechnics, and vocational training institutions, either public or private, offering qualifications at different levels and of differing length through formal education programs either on-site, at distance or in a blended format.
Tertiary education is a human right: Access to tertiary education “on the basis of merit” is a human right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Art. 26.2), and referred to in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Art. 13c). The 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) affirmed the right of all children, regardless of status, to free and compulsory primary education, to available and accessible secondary education, and to tertiary education on the basis of capacity (United Nations, 1989, Art. 28).
Tertiary education strengthens the education continuum: Access to tertiary education serves as a strong incentive for students to continue and complete their studies at the primary and secondary levels. Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4) explicitly promotes lifelong learning opportunities for all.
There is a large unmet demand for tertiary education among refugees: Refugees who have completed secondary school almost universally voice the desire to attend university. Opportunities for tertiary education for refugees, however, are severely limited and uneven across regions and settings of displacement, particularly for women. Difficulty accessing quality learning, education, and skill-building opportunities was one of ten issues highlighted by refugee youth during the 2016 Global Refugee Youth Consultations. Increases in secondary education enrolments raise the demand for tertiary education opportunities among refugee youth.
- Tertiary education protects and contributes to durable solutions: Tertiary education can foster the development of critical thinking, knowledge production, and information literacy skills that contribute to post-conflict reconstruction, promote social, economic, and gender equality and empower refugee communities to live self reliant lives and contribute to the peaceful development of host and home countries.
- "In general, primary education is formative while tertiary education has the possibility to be transformative." (Milton & Barakat 2016, 414)
Advocacy & Partnerships
In line with the New York Declaration and the CRRF, the United Nations advocate for full inclusion of refugee children and youth in national education systems. Inclusion is a far more durable, sustainable and reliable solution to the issue of education in the context of displacement. Universities must open their gates to refugee students, accept them on the same conditions as nationals, taking their special needs into consideration and providing alternative ways to recognition of prior learning.
In 2017, UNESCO published a policy paper on “Six ways to ensure higher education leaves no one behind”. UNHCR gives guidance to scholarship providers through its “Higher Education Considerations for Refugees in Countries Affected by the Syria and Iraq Crises."
In 2018, the United Nations General Assembly affirmed the Global Compact on Refugees, a framework for more predictable and equitable responsibility-sharing for sustainable solutions. In line with national education laws, policies and planning, and in support of host countries, States and relevant stakeholders will contribute resources and expertise to expand and enhance the quality and inclusiveness of national education systems to facilitate access by refugee and host community children (both boys and girls), adolescents and youth to primary, secondary and tertiary education.
In December 2019, one year after the affirmation of the Global Compact on Refugees, the first Global Refugee Forum is a critical opportunity to build momentum towards achieving the objectives of this new commitment in terms of refugee education, one of the main themes.
As the only UN agency with a mandate in higher education, UNESCO has worked to break down the barriers that hinder refugees from pursuing higher education or finding work. In 2019, UNESCO will increase its efforts to improve refugees’ access to higher education by adopting a Global Convention on the Recognition of Higher Education Qualifications, aiming to facilitate inter-regional academic mobility and to establish common recognition practices worldwide. This #Passport4Education will constitute a framework for Member States to increase collaboration on recognition of refugees’ qualifications and therefore increase their access to higher education.
Lack of financial resources is often the main obstacle for vulnerable students to access tertiary education. Many universities treat refugees as foreign students and charge much higher fees.
Scholarships ensure protected and decent living conditions for sponsored students, allowing them to focus on their studies, build networks, and gain skills necessary to later succeed in the labor market. Depending on the program, scholarships cover a wide range of costs, from tuition fees and study materials, to food, transport, and accommodation.
Some of the large scholarship providers include DAAD (HOPES), EduSyria, SPARK, WUSC and UNHCR. The Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative (DAFI) is a recognized model for flexible, targeted support of young refugees. It combines protection, solutions and human development approaches. Since 1992, it has supported more than 14,500 refugees to study in their host countries.
In 2017, the Institute of International Education (IIE) and the Catalyst Foundation for Universal Education developed the Platform for Education in Emergencies Response (PEER), an online clearinghouse enabling displaced and refugee students to connect with educational opportunities so they may continue formal and informal higher education. While the initial focus of PEER has been on the Syrian refugee crisis, the platform aims to become a global resource for all refugee and displaced students, connecting them to scholarships, language and online learning, and other educational resources.
Connected Learning Programmes
Coordinated by the University of Geneva (InZone) and UNHCR, the Connected Learning in Crisis Consortium (CLCC) was founded in 2016. The CLCC aims to promote, coordinate, and support the provision of quality tertiary education in contexts of conflict, crisis and displacement through connected learning.
Connected learning is an innovative pedagogical approach that leverages information technology to combine face-to-face and online learning, otherwise known as blended learning. It enables students living in remote and mostly under-resourced areas to connect with higher education opportunities and to exchange knowledge globally. Since 2010, more than 6,500 refugee learners in 11 countries have participated in connected learning programmes of the consortium members.
This collection was developed with the support of Maren Kroeger and Leona Weiher at UNHCR.