Refugee education: start by picking low-hanging fruit

Refugee education: start by picking low-hanging fruit

At EAIE Glasgow 2015, European international educators were confronted with the largest number of refugees since the Second World War was moving across the Mediterranean Sea and into European soil. It seemed clear that all parts of society would have to contribute if we were to avoid – or at least lessen – a humanitarian crisis in Europe. But what role could higher education institutions play in this situation? This key question was discussed a year later, at EAIE Liverpool 2016.

At the last Annual EAIE Conference this past September, as part of the ‘Refugees in focus’ conference track, representatives of institutions from eight countries participated in a workshop to share and collect ideas and practices. Being among the first institutions that were quick to respond, Freie Universität Berlin and the University College of Southeast Norway presented their experiences. The European University Association (EUA) presented its Refugees Welcome Map, which aims to give an overview of initiatives and activities for refugees by the higher education sector.

Defining the obstacles

There is, of course, not one single formula for success to this challenge. An important goal of the workshop, therefore, was to encourage individual reflection on obstacles and opportunities on the institutional, national and international level.
There is a variety of obstacles facing institutions that wish to welcome refugee students and scholars. The most serious concerns voiced were those relating to financial restrictions and a negative attitude towards refugee initiatives in certain countries. In many places, regulations on admissions and work permits are effectively stopping institutions from including refugees.
For the refugees themselves, the most imminent barriers are language and the recognition of previous studies. Even if language courses are available, it may be difficult to reach the proficiency level necessary for succeeding in further studies. Moreover, the increased need (and, in some countries, requirement) of English fluency in education and research is rarely recognised and provided for in national policies.
Problems concerning the recognition of previous studies and transfer of credits are well known for all who work in the internationalisation of education. For refugees, often arriving from countries with limited involvement in the Bologna process, the curriculum and structure of their previous studies may differ so significantly from that in their host country that simply continuing where they left off is not possible. The individual need for academic advice and bridging courses is a very real challenge.
Not finding ways around these obstacles means that we will miss out on the skills and competencies of people who have arrived in our countries to stay. We will lose them into an unskilled European work market where the number of jobs is rapidly declining. Whatever the financial situation of our country, this is a scenario we cannot afford.

Low-hanging fruit

Rather than being dragged down by the bleakest of prospects, the workshop identified some low-hanging fruits – ie easy to implement ideas that could be put in place as soon as we returned from Liverpool. These are as follows:

  • Making knowledge available: Universities and colleges have insight and research that may be valuable to the public debate on the refugee situation, reducing the spread of xenophobia.
  • Building institutional webpages for refugees: if an institution has opportunities for refugees, it is important that these are easily found.
  • Creating a refugee guide to higher education: information on study opportunities is often only aimed at national students and potential students applying from abroad.
  • Developing internship opportunities: a placement in an academic environment can make it possible to evaluate individual academic competencies and provide better advice on study and work opportunities.
  • Applying for Online Linguistic Support (OLS) courses for refugees: these courses may even be used by asylum seekers, and can provide much-needed language training from an early stage.
  • Making use of the refugees’ competencies: for instance, Arabic-speaking refugees can participate in language tandem programmes with students of the Arabic language who have increasingly fewer exchange opportunities.
  • Creating networking groups for students and scholars of similar academic backgrounds.
  • Registering on the EUA Refugees Welcome Map: in order to make initiatives generally visible.
  • Mapping and building our own networks: inside and outside the higher education and research sectors.

The last point – mapping and building our own networks – is crucial to the development of long-term solutions. Solutions to admissions and recognition issues may already have been found by other institutions. Solutions that imply changes in national regulations may require a broad national initiative to get the necessary support. Cooperation with NGOs may give important insight into the real and diverse needs of refugees. If our wish is to make academic inclusion of refugees a permanent part of our duties as international educators, this must be part of our regular international cooperation agenda!

Joining forces

In June of this year, the EAIE brought together over 100 international educators to a Spotlight Seminar on integrating refugees. This was followed by a special refugee track at the Liverpool conference. The EAIE has begun building a platform for change in the way we meet refugees in academia. Continuing to learn from each other through blogs, articles, webinars, workshops and conferences will be a key factor for success. Yet this is not enough. Real change is only possible if we manage to make it a part of the greater European debate – both on higher education and migration.
We urge EAIE and other international organisations working on these topics to join forces. Strong leadership is needed, on the institutional, national and transnational levels – and our leaders may need both help and to be held accountable. There is still significant lack of coordination of different initiatives, as well as funding. It is high time that we take a new look at the Lisbon Recognition Convention, to see whether all obligations have been fulfilled in the most rational manner. And then, who knows? Perhaps refugees can breathe new life into the Bologna process.
Anna is Project Leader of the Academic Dugnad for refugees at the University of Oslo, Norway.