Higher Education opportunitiesWorldwide, 3.7 million refugee children are not in school. This is more than half of the 7.1 million school-age refugees. The higher the level of education, the less likely it is that a refugee attends school. Data from a 2019 UNHCR report shows that only 3% of refugees are enrolled in some form of higher education. Evidence suggests that education leads to less reliance on humanitarian aid. Online learning may present a possible solution. The benefits of higher education opportunities for refugees range from increased economic prosperity to higher levels of confidence, creativity and leadership.

Inclusive Education

One of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is inclusive educational access for all. This includes more access to higher education for refugees. The UNHCR’s Refugee Education 2030 strategy aims to achieve educational parity on all levels and raise the enrolment of refugees in higher education to 15%. A hybrid model of online and in-person instruction is becoming more popular. Increased interest and investment in online learning and degree certification could potentially provide new opportunities in higher education for refugees.

Providing Opportunities

Launched in March 2019, a hybrid learning initiative in Turkey has proven successful, serving more than 28,000 Syrian refugee students. The UNDP Turkey’s Syria Crisis Response and Resilience Programme started the initiative in order to offer easily accessible Turkish language lessons to Syrian refugees for them to better integrate into Turkish society. The initiative is funded by the European Union and implemented in cooperation with the Turkish Ministry of Education. The online language program is flexible, personalized and offers in-person meetings with an instructor. This is in addition to an array of online courses. Since the content is online, students can continue with their courses even if their living situation changes. Furthermore, a continuous reliable internet connection is not necessarily needed.

The University at Albany offers online medical courses in Arabic to Syrian refugees. The program launched in 2016 with 320 students enrolled. The courses give refugees who already have some form of higher education the chance to continue taking courses in their respective fields. The program also includes English language classes. It is part of a catalog of many other similar initiatives on the website MOOCs4inclusion. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are free digital education classes. MOOCS are accessible anywhere there is an internet connection.

Barriers to Learning

Western universities develop and teach the majority of online courses and degree programs used in refugee camps. However, the majority of refugees do not end up in a Western country, they stay in the refugee camp or return home. In order for online education to be truly successful, courses must take the particular circumstances of refugees into account. Researchers at the University of Geneva, Paul O’Keeffe and Abdeljalil Akkari, started a basic medical training course in Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp. The goal of the online course was to focus on relevant health issues in the area of Kakuma. The refugees helped inform the course content. Culturally relevant courses and an understanding of life in a refugee camp are important to implement successful online education geared toward refugees. Another barrier often encountered is that reliable internet is usually a necessity for online learning, yet a rare resource in most refugee camps.


Education for Humanity, a program of Arizona State University (ASU), uses technological innovations to break down some of the common barriers of online higher education opportunities for refugees. The program includes education on how to be a successful digital learner and the option of “earned admissions” for refugees without the required documents or qualifications for enrollment. In order to break down the internet barrier, Education for Humanity uses technology that does not require reliable access to the internet.

SolarSPELL is a solar-powered digital library that acts as an offline WiFi hotspot. Students access the course content by connecting their phone, tablet or laptop to the SolarSPELL’s offline WiFi signal. A whole 95% of the content is available offline and is available for download so students can still study without being connected to SolarSPELL. In 2019, Education for Humanity used SolarSPELL to offer an agribusiness course in the Nakivale refugee camp in Uganda.

Easier access to education for refugees is an important goal. Recent innovations such as SolarSPELL aim to break down barriers so that refugees can access higher education opportunities to ensure a promising future.

Caitlin Harjes
Photo: Flickr