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Fragile states

University degrees for refugees – and reconstruction

by Claas Morlang, Carolina Stolte
Juan Joyce Mary leitet ein Mikro-Kredit-Projekt für die kirchliche Mission im Sudan. Sie ist eine ehemalige DAFI-Studentin

Juan Joyce Mary leitet ein Mikro-Kredit-Projekt für die kirchliche Mission im Sudan. Sie ist eine ehemalige DAFI-Studentin

Graduates from refugee families can support their communities in the short term – and boost reconstruction and development in the long run, after returning home to post-crisis countries. It is essential to pick the right students, choose appropriate universities and select meaningful courses. [ By Claas Morlang and Carolina Stolte ]

The United Nations and numerous partner organisations have been investing in education programmes for refugees for decades – and particularly so in camps in the countries of asylum. In 2006, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) alone spent some $ 35 million on refugee education, particularly on primary and secondary schools. So far, the emphasis was always on basic education.

In 2006, the UNHCR only spent about 8,5 % of education funds on higher education. Entire generations of people from war-torn countries have had only limited or no access to tertiary education, mainly due to budgetary constraints. While it is true that a single scholarship for one refugee may cost more than $ 4,000 annually, such investment offers great opportunities in terms of humanitarian intervention in the countries of asylum as well as long-term development in the countries of origin.

The Albert Einstein Academic Refugee Initiative (DAFI), implemented by UNHCR, is the only programme that exclusively focuses on tertiary refugee education. It is funded by Germany and was started by Germany’s Foreign Office in cooperation with UNHCR. The primary objective of the programme is to promote self-reliance of refugees by providing qualifications geared towards future employment. More generally, however, the aim is to train qualified people who will be needed for future reconstruction of refugees’ home countries.

For refugees, who cannot return home in the foreseeable future, however, scholarships can facilitate integration in the country of asylum, contributing to the development of the local community. Graduates serve as role models to refugee youth. Especially female role models are needed to promote girls’ education.

Best practices

Based on DAFI experience and systematic research into the impact of this programme, some best practices can be recommended. These practices have proven to increase the benefits of funding to both individual students and the development of their communities, ensuring that funds are used in a cost-effective way. UNHCR today manages to educate about 1,700 refugees each year at an average cost of $ 2,000 per annum.

It makes sense for refugees to study in countries that are close to their countries of origin – both in geographical and cultural terms. That makes returning home more likely. Funding for tertiary education must be geared towards sustainable results. Students will benefit most from courses that teach them to work with regionally available resources. Especially in the cases of medicine and engineering, it is counterproductive to learn to handle equipment and materials that will be in short supply once graduates start working in their communities.

Moreover, it is important to assess academic facilities and the quality of teaching. The UNHCR therefore weighs tuition fees and the general cost of subsistence against the standard of the education provided. A precondition for meaningful allocation of funds is in-depth knowledge of all relevant circumstances. In Africa, for instance, scholarships are comparatively costly; but the high employment rate of graduates highlights the pressing need for qualified staff: 81 % of refugee graduates are employed either in their country of asylum or that of origin. That ratio is above the programme’s global average of about 70 %.

Selection criteria

University standards vary widely and cannot be compared easily. Local knowledge and university rankings may assist in selecting institutions of high quality. On top of that, the following criteria for selection are useful:
– Universities must be accredited by the government of the host country to assure a minimum academic standard.
– It is essential that the education system in the country of operation is equivalent to that of the country of origin, to guarantee that academic credentials are accepted upon return.
– Universities and institutions must possess the proper resources and conditions for study. Those with records of poor facilities, such as a lack of sufficient library or internet services, and of frequent disturbances affecting the students’ studies should be excluded.

At each selected institution of higher education, self-supporting student groups should be established. Networks of scholarship-beneficiaries will address issues of common concern, minimising donors’ expenditure on monitoring and administration. In the selection of degree programmes, cost and quality must similarly be balanced. Particularly promising fields of study include agriculture, development and education. Almost all DAFI scholars who specialised in these fields found employment immediately after graduation.

Education-related courses in particular offer good opportunities. That is so even when return to the country of origin is not immediately feasible. After all, teachers are needed both in the countries of asylum and in refugee camps.

Funding limitations may restrict student’s choice of degree programmes, and so may local demand for certain professionals. It is essential to take such constraints into account in order to really respond to regional needs. Therefore, the UNHCR does not fund scholarships for multi-year courses like medicine. They are too expensive and tie up funds for too long. On the other hand, the UNHCR does fund paramedical courses because graduates deliver valuable services. A similar cost-benefit consideration applies to post-graduate studies. Instead of paying for one student achieving a PhD, it makes more sense to provide two other students with the opportunities of reaching a first degree.

Persons of great potential

The UNHCR uses a thorough selection process, to make sure that the most deserving refugees get the scholarships available. It is important to support those persons who show a real potential for future professional activity in support of reconstruction and development of post-conflict countries or who are prepared to work with refugee communities. More than 55 % of all employed DAFI graduates work in related fields. In other words, the selection criteria have proven successful and should be maintained.

Clear requirements narrow the pool of eligible candidates by excluding those who do not meet basic criteria. This approach also ensures that the selection process is transparent and reduces the number of ineligible applications. This matters in the sense of limiting the workload of the agency in charge, while pre-empting disappointment of candidates at the same time. Thanks to a diligent selection process, UNHCR has a low dropout rate of only three percent.

Individually, a student’s previous academic performance is an important selection criterion to ensure that the most deserving candidates will receive scholarships. However, specific circumstances resulting in lower performance must be taken into consideration. The age of the applicant also matters: preference should be given to recent graduates from secondary schools. Doing so gives school pupils an incentive to keep on studying. More importantly, young graduates are more likely to succeed in their studies and thus more likely to contribute to development in the long run.

The financial resources of applicants and their families are relevant too. What assistance a candidate will need depends, not least, on the status and occupation of the head of the household, the family income and the various forms of support it can provide.

Assessing needs

Applicants should be able to clearly state why they want to study a particular subject, and they should relate that choice to probable employment opportunities. Obviously, candidates are particularly promising if their employment-ideas relate to development. After all, the long-term goal is to prepare graduates for reconstruction of their countries, thus contributing to stability and security at the regional level. In turn, the agency in charge should enquire what skills will be needed in the countries concerned. It should also provide guidance on the matter to applicants. In Afghanistan for example, there is a growing demand for qualified administrative and accounting personnel, and scholarship programmes should respond accordingly.

Other selection criteria include the following:
– It is important to increase the participation of female students. From 1992 to 2007, the UNHCR has been able to increase female participation in the scholarship programme from 20 % to 48 %. The implementing agency is influential in this regard. For example, the UNHCR offered English language courses to female refugees in Ethiopia, enabling them to apply for scholarships.
– Persons with specific needs such as victims of violence with excellent academic records deserve special consideration.

According to UNHCR experience, it is crucial to spell out expectations in writing from the outset. Clear rules, when enforced, minimise the likelihood of students dropping out, changing courses and making other cost-consuming decisions. It makes sense to sign an agreement with each scholar, including specifics on allowances. Generally, the amounts should reflect full study costs and the costs of living in the host country. Support levels must ensure that students enjoy a modest but decent standard of living and have the means to complete their studies. Otherwise, students are likely to drop out in cases of economic difficulty. The UNHCR has therefore carefully assessed the costs of living in all 70 countries of implementation.

Moreover, it is advisable to offer refugee students that are entering an unfamiliar social context some support and understanding. An enabling environment to contribute to their success at university can be established in several ways.
– Individual counselling helps to reduce adaptation difficulties and, accordingly, dropout rates. This can be offered on fixed times to ensure a stable learning situation for the scholar. In turn, regular contact will facilitate timely intervention on the part of the implementing organisation regarding specific problems which may arise during the study term.
– Annual workshops or seminars for scholars provide a forum for discussion of concerns and opportunities to establish support networks. The latter help to maintain contact between graduates and the implementing organisation beyond graduation. Workshops often include sessions on HIV/AIDS, gender equality and drug abuse to provide information and raise awareness. Scholars should be reminded of the special responsibility and obligations related to being awarded a scholarship in view of their role in the community after graduation.
– Career guidance is to be made available to scholars nearing graduation. This has proven useful as early as 1995, when the first labour market orientation workshops were held in Kenya. The agency in charge may also supply letters of support to graduates in order to facilitate future employment. Internships and local alumni associations also boost future employability, and help implementing agencies and students alike to network with companies in search of graduates.


Tertiary refugee education is not a priority compared with the other levels of education. However, research into 15 years of experience with the DAFI scholarship programme has proven that the benefits for development are high. Scholarship programmes can and do work, provided they are carefully implemented, making sure funds are efficiently allocated.

The principles outlined above make it possible to carry out programmes in a way that is not only cost-efficient, but also delivers the best contribution to reconstruction and development. Experience shows that employment of returned graduates reaches 95 %, with 74 % reporting an above-average income. Considering that most are employed in sectors with an immediate relevance for reconstruction, it is obvious that it is not only the graduates themselves to benefit, but also their communities and even society in general.

These people make lasting contributions to peace and stability in regions of conflict and acute refugee crises. By setting examples, they highlight the rewards of education to all, but particularly to refugee children and their parents. And that is not only the case for those who eventually become top-level leaders, for instance in their nation’s cabinet, as has already occurred several times.