The power of higher education for refugee students

The power of higher education for refugee students

From 9–10 June, the EAIE is hosting an interactive Spotlight Seminar in Amsterdam focusing on European solutions for integrating refugees into higher education. In this blog post we hear from keynote speaker Helena Lindholm, Pro Vice-Chancellor of the University of Gothenburg. The role of the higher education sector in the integration of refugees into host societies is of extreme importance. Helena argues that this can go further – educating refugees can help create a mass of educated individuals capable of eventually rebuilding their home countries.

For years now, we have been witnessing one of the great humanitarian disasters of our times. The civil war in Syria with its huge human consequences in terms of loss of life and livelihoods, destruction of homes, houses and infrastructure, the recession of development and the tearing apart of the very social fabric of society has entered its fifth year. Refugees with nothing left to lose struggle to get inside the borders of the European Union.

The lost generation

Many of the individuals fleeing the war scene of Syria are scholars, academics, students, or young people at the age of becoming students. It is estimated that there are at least 100,000 refugees currently missing university classes while residing in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey[i], and another 55,000 in Europe.[ii] These young people have had their opportunities for further education disrupted due to the war and the flight. Many more are in the age of university studies but have never had the option to initiate their studies.

They are the lost generation, the generation that has lost many years of education. At the same time, they constitute a resource; they are young, ambitious, motivated and are considered the hope for Syria‘s future. They make up the difference between Syria and many other similar situations, in the sense that they are there, the remnants of Syria’s university and education structure. The level of education in Syria prior to the war was fairly high.

Opportunities and options

Most of the international efforts are still focused on humanitarian relief and crisis management. One day, however, the international donor community will get together for a huge conference, discussing how to reconstruct, rebuild and reconcile a devastated and fragmented Syria. Such is the course of events after intense interstate or civil wars in our times. The intentions are always good and the results of the actual conference and discussions are often promising. However, many times, they end up with meagre real effects.

In the case of the Syrian crisis, there is actually a possibility to act for the future stability of Syria right now. There is a window of opportunity to prepare not only for that particular moment and conference, but to prepare for a long-term peace-building strategy, aiming to reconstruct a ruined state, structure and system and to contribute to the potentials for longer term stability in the Middle East, Europe’s closest neighbour.

This possibility exists within investment in the human capital of Syria itself; a human capital which is now at risk of being lost. What will be needed, once Syria has healed its wounds and entered a new future, is an educated labour force. Syria will need doctors, teachers, nurses, architects, engineers, lawyers, psychologists, social workers, accountants and business people. Syria will also need general social scientists and humanists, trained for critical analysis and reflexion.

Lack of education as a risk

Lack of education and hope for future social mobility is also a risk factor in terms of security and stability, since a young generation without hopes for social mobility and employment is at risk of exclusion and radicalisation. The Middle East is today a region in fragmentation and turmoil; a number of states are rapidly falling into the category of weak, fragile or collapsed states. To contribute to the stabilisation of the Middle East, education must be a strategic goal for Europe.

European Higher education can play a role

Higher education should be part of the long-term strategies for aid and development cooperation. The fourth United Nations Sustainable Development Goal is ‘quality education for all’. To take this seriously, we must come together and respond to this long-term need to educate students who currently lack education opportunities due to war and risk situations.

Higher education institutions themselves can act in accordance with such a commitment – a commitment built on the values system of the university sector: humanism, academic freedom and integrity. There are already a number of excellent activities in this regard as European universities and governments see and respond to this need. However, the needs are vast and much more can and should be done.

Higher education institutions in Europe can create an agenda for at-risk students and academics with a unified goal: the future reconstruction of Syria. Initiatives and activities to promote should relate to facilitating access to higher education for Syrian refugee students, whether they are in Europe or in the Middle East. This can be done through a number of ways; quicker and smoother validation processes, integration programmes, scholarships and establishment of programmes and courses directly created in order to reach out to the target group. But higher education institutions cannot do this on their own, they need committed governments and development institutions. Together, we can take considerable steps forward.

Helena is Pro Vice-Chancellor and Professor in peace and development research at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.

Make sure to check out the full programme for this important Spotlight Seminar. The early-bird deadline for registering is 4 May. The final deadline is 23 May. Don’t miss out on being a part of this conversation, register today!

[i] Loriska, I. Cremonini, L. and Safar Jalani, M. (2015) Study to Design a Programme / Clearinghouse Providing Access to Higher Education for Syrian Refugees and Internal Displaced Persons. European Union Delegation to the Syrian Arab Republic; IIE (2014) The War Follows Them: Syrian University Students

[ii] Based on calculation, and the fact that there was prior to the war a 25 % univeristy attendance among the population.