Higher Education During Times of Emergency

Education is essential to building a foundation of lifelong learning and development. However, education remains a severely underfunded sector in the humanitarian space and during emergencies, such as times of crisis or conflict. Even further, higher education is often considered a luxury which exacerbates inequalities between those impacted by emergencies, and those who are not. For example, roughly 3% of refugees successfully attend tertiary studies compared to 37% of people globally. This disparity in attainment of higher education leaves communities disadvantaged and unable to rebuild once the crisis has ended. For this reason, higher education scholarships which directly benefit refugees, displaced people, and others affected by crisis, are an integral component to humanitarian responses which work to provide a sense of normalcy, stability, and prevent lost generations.

Emergency Scholarships for Syrian Refugees

In recent years, academic programs worldwide have begun to work with displaced students affected by crisis, by expanding access to higher education through scholarship opportunities. Academic programs and other higher education organizations are now more likely to consider the protection and safety of refugee students, offering scholarships directly intended for these populations. More information regarding scholarship opportunities which are currently open for Syrian refugees can be found on Refugee Pathways.

The Impact of COVID-19 on Emergency Scholarships

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen globally how essential it is to have emergency funds within the education sector. Education Cannot Wait, the first global fund dedicated to education in emergencies and protracted crises, has announced a new series of emergency grants totalling $23 million to assist critical education needs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, the United Nations (UN) has launched the COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan, which is a massive humanitarian appeal that will span from April to December of 2020 to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on fragile countries. The Humanitarian Response Plan is a joint effort between the UN, other international organizations, and NGOs, focusing on public health precautions and containing the spread of COVID-19 within the different response sectors. While the appeal also aims to limit related social and economic impacts of the pandemic, there is limited allocated funding towards education programs and higher education itself is not mentioned.

Refugees and displaced students remain most vulnerable to losing educational opportunities during this time. According to UNESCO, nationwide school closures have been implemented in more than 180 countries, which has negatively impacted the learning of 91% of the world’s student population, which is over 1.5 billion students, including millions of refugees. This acts as a great disservice, as Times Higher Education discusses how “refugees can benefit from the facilitative power of higher education to equip themselves with the skills and knowledge they need to overcome these dangers….[making] this is a priority [during COVID-19] more than ever before.”

Furthermore, as the global community endures the pandemic of COVID-19, the need for emergency academic support has expanded to a larger demographic of people who are currently experiencing a crisis which is impacting their ability to complete their academic programs. The higher education sector is now being asked to provide emergency related relief to a greater percentage of their students — in the same manner as programs have been designed for refugee and displaced students impacted by a disruption of education — as this crisis unfolds. Institutions are beginning to provide benefits, including extending deadlines, waiving application fees, and offering financial assistance in order to accommodate the continuation of their students’ education during this uncertain time. However, it is still undecided what the 2020–21 academic year will look like.

How to Support Higher Education and Scholarship Programs During a Global Emergency

In recent weeks, NGOs, higher education institutions, and international organizations have all begun to adapt to provide education during the time of COVID-19.

SPARK, an international non-profit organization offering access to higher education and entrepreneurship opportunities in fragile states, is continuing their efforts in responding to the higher education crisis for Syrian refugees and vulnerable youth residing in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq by re-focusing to work with universities to ensure students can continue their education through distance learning or other blended learning initiatives.

As distance learning is reaching a larger number of students, University of the People, an American-accredited, tuition-free online university dedicated to opening access to higher education globally, should be seen as a model of effective online schooling. Refugees and displaced students have received online degrees through UoPeople as an attainable avenue to higher education during times of emergency. UoPeople has not been impacted by COVID-19 and applications for the next term are currently open.

In addition, the Institute of International Education leads Student Emergency Initiatives, such as IIE’s Platform for Education in Emergencies Response (PEER), the IIE Syria Consortium for Higher Education in Crisis, and the IIE Emergency Student Fund which allow refugees and displaced students the ability to carry on their higher education and continue to find normalcy amidst times of uncertainty. As a response to COVID-19, IIE is asking their Network Member Institutions in the United States to nominate international students on their campuses who may be unable to return to their home countries over the summer break due to the COVID-19 pandemic for an Emergency Student Fund award. These additional funds aim to “respond to urgent crises in an immediate and effective manner by providing financial support to students when emergencies…jeopardize the future of their studies.”

Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies, a leading voice in this field, advocates for distance learning, alternative education, and psychosocial support for students impacted by COVID-19. INEE is providing resources which “aim to help parents, teachers, schools and school administrators facilitate student learning and provide social care and interaction during periods of school closure.”

As these handful of organizations highlight, there are a myriad of ways we can show up for higher education during this time. We are also seeing that many of the alternative measures that have been created for displaced students experiencing crisis have become blueprints for wider approaches during the COVID-19 pandemic, including emergency scholarships and distance learning degrees. As we move forward, the higher education landscape will likely look different and incorporate more of these blended online and in-person degree seeking programs.

At this time when we are experiencing a shared crisis, Refugee Pathways calls on the higher education community, along with the humanitarian aid community, to further expand scholarship opportunities, as well as distance learning and other blended learning initiatives which will serve those in crisis. In particular, there it is necessary to further expand opportunities for refugees and other displaced students who have the greatest barriers to higher education. Amidst the uncertainty, may this be a time to birth more inclusive, attainable, and wide-reaching higher education programs.

By Emily Ervin, Refugee Pathways

Emily Ervin is committed to supporting complementary resettlement pathways for refugees through her role as Research Assistant at Refugee Pathways. She has also been a Coordinator at the Institute of International Education in Washington D.C. since 2017.



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Refugee Pathways

Refugee Pathways

Empowering refugees on their journey to safety one complementary pathway at a time.