St.Mary's University

In spite of its clear benefits, higher education for refugees remains a relatively low priority around the world. This is despite growing demand for refugee higher education and its potential contribution to social, economic and gender equality.

Historically, refugee education has received relatively little attention as efforts are directed towards life-saving interventions pertaining to food, water, shelter and health. However, things have changed with the gradual consideration of the provision of higher education to refugees as an indispensable element in the overall goals of the global education movement.

The opportunities created by higher education can pave the way for refugees to acquire the skills and qualifications needed not only for self-development but to support livelihoods and competition in the job market.


Research has shown that, in addition to empowering refugee communities, the availability of higher education can serve as a strong incentive for students to complete primary and secondary education and especially as an important tool for developing the human and social capital needed for future reconstruction and economic development in countries of origin.

Research has also shown that higher education can play a significant role in overcoming feelings of hopelessness, depression and low self-esteem among refugees. It can safeguard refugees from negative life experiences by offering a sense of hope for the future. In doing so, higher education is supposed to serve as a tool for building the social basis for lasting and sustainable peace and for post-conflict reconstruction.

The emerging global response toward refugee higher education appears to be encouraging but what has been achieved so far is just a trickle. In spite of its benefits, the provision of refugee higher education is fraught with challenges and obstacles at policy, institutional or operational levels.

For example, the policies of host countries related to legal and practical frameworks, the job status of refugees, funding schemes, system coordination, and other issues can either facilitate or hinder refugee higher education.

Within the higher education sector itself, issues such as the treatment of refugees as foreign students, enrolment quotas that give priority to nationals, and matriculation restrictions, could determine whether refugees would be able to have access to higher education in the host country.

Even in contexts where they are accommodated better, refugee students can encounter a multitude of academic and school-related challenges that can hamper their success.
Issues such as the integration of refugees into local institutions, the need to modify the curriculum or learning outcomes, having proper documents and credentials, differing institutional requirements, tuition fees and teacher preparation have been cited often as common challenges faced by refugees.

The Ethiopian experience

Ethiopia has lately received acclaim for issuing a progressive refugee law that caters to the fundamental needs of refugees.

The law (FDRE 2019) stipulates that every recognised refugee or asylum-seeker shall receive the same treatment as accorded to Ethiopian nationals with respect to education. This includes pre-primary and primary education; secondary education; higher education; technical and vocation education and training; and adult and non-formal education (within available resources and subject to Ethiopia’s education policy).

Furthermore, recognised refugees and asylum-seekers can expect to receive the same treatment accorded to foreign nationals in respect of access to studies, the recognition of foreign school certificates, diplomas and degrees, the remission of fees and charges and the award of scholarships.

In keeping with national policy directions, Ethiopia’s Refugee Education Strategy (UNHCR 2015) aims at improving access to higher (tertiary) education opportunities for refugee young people through the following key strategies:

• Expansion of the number of scholarships for tertiary education in Ethiopia through partnerships with government, academic institutions, donors and foundations;

• Harmonised approaches to and implementation of tertiary education scholarship programmes, so that young refugees have equitable services and entitlements;

• Broadened access to professional and paraprofessional training courses in the refugee camps/setting as well as through scholarship opportunities outside of the camp; and

• Access to certified higher education courses through open and distance learning using Information and Communication Technology (ICT).

Despite the many promising changes the new proclamation and the refugee education strategy can offer, there are a variety of challenges that occur at the level of institutions due to capacity limitations, lack of awareness of refugee conditions and limited follow-up.

Among such challenges is the language of instruction which hinders the opportunities and academic progress of refugee students. This is compounded when, for some refugees, both the medium of instruction and the local language are different to the language with which they are familiar.

The language challenge

Gebreiyosus (2018) and Tamrat and Habtemariam (2019) have identified language in Ethiopia as a serious barrier for refugees in pursuing higher education. Refugee students attending higher education institutions in Ethiopia cite their lack of proficiency – both in Amharic, the official working language of Ethiopia, and in English, the medium of instruction at tertiary level – as a serious academic challenge.

In the Ethiopian context, Amharic is widely used by instructors in higher education institutions despite the fact that English is stipulated as a medium of instruction.

Refugee students observe that their teachers’ frequent use of Amharic to explain concepts make the task of understanding lessons daunting due to their deficiency in the language. Class participation is also hampered. Refugee students, in particular, face problems when teachers switch to Amharic to facilitate communication. The shift sometimes happens due to instructors’ lack of proficiency in the foreign language.

Furthermore, discussion about academic issues such as grades and clarification of unclear concepts inside or outside the classroom is often mediated entirely in Amharic, which again prevents refugee students from expressing their dissatisfaction about the way grades are calculated or from putting forward their queries. It is no surprise then that, among all the academic challenges they face, refugee students often cite the lack of Amharic or English language proficiency as one of the most serious.

Attempts by refugees to speak the local language can sometimes be a source of misunderstanding and refugee students are sometimes regarded as rude, domineering or impolite by their classmates and teachers. This is clear evidence that inadequate language proficiency can exacerbate the various social and cultural challenges the refugee students face.

Towards a strengthened support system

The difficulties faced by refugee students require greater understanding and call for strengthened institutional support systems to galvanise the higher education community towards identifying and removing the key barriers to successful refugee higher education.

This includes language-related challenges that appear to be key to academic exchanges and wider communication. In the absence of such schemes, the whole intention behind the laws and strategy aimed at providing opportunities for refugees might lose their meaning and even fail to achieve their objectives.

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