Centering Higher Education in the Global Movement for Refugee Education

The global movement for refugee education is gaining momentum. Spurred in part by the Syrian crisis, prominent actors from Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai to United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education and former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Gordon Brown are centering refugee education within the broader movements for universal primary and secondary education and comprehensive emergency response. Almost entirely missing from the conversation, however, is a call to support higher education in crisis contexts. In this paper I assess the relative value of higher education for displaced students within the global refugee education movement. Specifically, I address the following questions: How do various humanitarian actors – and displaced students themselves – value higher education in cases of mass displacement, and why? Should supporting higher education access be a more substantial part of the global refugee education movement? If so, how should this support manifest? I conclude that although higher education is valued highly by displaced students and their families, few prominent actors within the international community consider higher education access to be an emergency response priority in cases of mass displacement. Moreover, the education in emergencies field consistently treats higher education as a significantly lower priority than primary and secondary education. Despite this reticence, there is ample evidence that higher education is of substantial social and economic value to displaced students, their host countries, and their countries of origin. Given these findings, I argue that the global movement for refugee education should include more robust support for higher education. I conclude with four recommendations for supporting higher education for displaced students: 1) build higher education capacity in host countries and increase displaced students’ access to these institutions, 2) invest in higher education-focused technology solutions, including online learning and blended learning, 3) create and fund scholarship programs for displaced students at third-country universities, and 4) in the long-term, (re)build robust higher education sectors in post-conflict countries.

Resource Info


Published by

Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs

Authored by

Maia Bix


Education and Fragility
Levels of Learning - Tertiary Education