Global enrolment of refugees in higher education increased from 1% in 2019 to 7% in 2023, almost reaching the halfway mark towards the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) target of at least 15% enrolment by 2030 (the ‘15by30’ target).
The rise in refugee enrolment was reflected in the 30th anniversary edition of the DAFI (Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative) Tertiary Scholarship Programme annual report for 2022, launched at a press briefing on 13 October.
In honour of the 30th anniversary of the programme, the 2022 report is composed entirely of reflections written by over 30 DAFI scholarship recipients.
UNHCR spokesperson Eujin Byun said at the press briefing that several factors had contributed towards the increase in refugee enrolment, including “the steadfast commitment of education and government stakeholders that has led to increasing support from higher education institutions in host countries, which continue to offer places or reduce fees to ensure more equitable access for refugees”.
Byun also listed “ongoing improvements in data collection” and the expansion of the DAFI scholarship programme.
“Through higher education, we can help young refugees develop skills and earn qualifications to develop self-reliance and sustainable futures,” German Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs Annalena Baerbock wrote in the foreword to the DAFI report.
“Higher education also has an impact on society as a whole,” Baerbock added. “It improves the long-term stability of communities which host refugees, and it contributes to the peaceful development of their host countries and countries of origin. Let us strengthen DAFI even further and make a difference in the lives of more and more talented young refugees!”
Since its inception in 1992 the DAFI programme has reached over 24,000 students worldwide. According to the report, in 2022, 9,043 refugee students from 50 countries of origin were enrolled in DAFI scholarships in 56 countries around the world – an increase of nearly 1,000 students from 2021.
In 2022, 1,377 DAFI students graduated from universities and 2,722 new scholarships were awarded and the DAFI programme received the highest number of applications to date – 18,818 in total – reflecting increased demand and greater need for investment in higher education scholarships and opportunities for refugees.
The top countries of origin include South Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Burundi, the Central African Republic, Yemen and Iraq.
The top fields of study include medical science and health, social and behavioural sciences, engineering, mathematics and computer sciences, natural science, education science and teacher training, law, and agriculture, forestry and fishery.
The report indicates that the top region of origin and the top region of study were the same: the East and Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes (EHAGL), followed by Middle East and Northern Africa, and Asia and the Pacific. Programmes in the EHAGL region supported the largest share of DAFI students (38% of the total DAFI student body).
According to the report, DAFI programmes in Europe accounted for just under 10% of the total student body (836 scholars in total) in 2022. The region includes Türkiye, Azerbaijan, Russia, Slovakia, Ukraine and Serbia. The report notes that a DAFI programme in Slovakia opened in 2022 in response to the refugee crisis resulting from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has seen nearly six million Ukrainians flee their country since February 2022.
While universities throughout Moldova, Poland, Slovenia and other countries absorbed significant numbers of Ukrainian students, the report also states that on the recommendation of Ukrainian authorities, “many Ukrainian students continue to follow their Ukrainian university classes online”.
In 2022, 43% of the scholars were women – the highest rate ever – indicating that the programme is on track to achieve gender parity in enrolment by 2025.
DAFI country operations continued to strive for gender parity by restructuring admission considerations to reduce unintentional discrimination, delivering focus groups with prospective female applicants and secondary students, and conducting community-based campaigns to raise awareness about the unique importance of higher education for women, according to the DAFI report.
Byun said scholarship programmes that specifically support refugees, such as DAFI, were “vital for both refugees and the communities that host them – enabling forcibly displaced students to continue their schooling, secure employment and contribute to their host countries”.
Byun explained: “Many DAFI scholars and graduates have already put their education and skills into action by securing leadership positions, starting companies, obtaining employment or advancing innovation and research that can improve lives around the world.”
The report indicated that DAFI scholars around the world had access to a range of training and workshops focused on career planning, employment opportunities, entrepreneurship, resume writing, interviewing and other career-readiness skills. In 2022, 15% of DAFI scholars participated in job or career readiness training, 14% completed internships and over 40% engaged in community service or volunteering.
The economic returns for tertiary education graduates are the highest in the entire educational system – an estimated 17% increase in earnings compared with 10% for primary and 7% for secondary education completion, according to the report.
“Furthermore, the economic returns for female graduates of higher education are the greatest,” the report notes. “Women with a secondary school education may earn twice as much as those with no formal education, and women with a tertiary education may make three times as much.”
Byun said refugees struggle to access higher education on an equal footing with nationals in many countries of asylum because of the lack of inclusive educational policies, capacity constraints, high course fees and other administrative or bureaucratic barriers.
Through its focus on student perspectives, the report highlighted that job-readiness is a priority for DAFI scholars who frequently reported a desire for more career preparation and job placement opportunities.
The report also indicated that over half of the countries where DAFI operates have policies that allow refugees to work “but in practice, refugees frequently face barriers to enter the formal labour market, may be excluded from working in the public or civil service sector, face complicated and costly processes to obtain work permits and are not consistently permitted to open bank accounts or register businesses”.
The report noted: “DAFI scholars, refugee leaders and partners stress the need not only to expand higher education opportunities, but also for states to ensure refugees’ right to work, so that they can apply their education, knowledge and skills to contribute to development around the world.”
Call to expand HE opportunities
Given the impact of the DAFI programme, Byun said the “UNHCR is calling for increased investment to expand higher education opportunities”.
Ahead of the Global Refugee Forum 2023, the largest gathering on refugee issues, due to take place in Geneva, Switzerland, from 3 to 15 December, Byun said the UNHCR is urging states and the private sector to increase funding for and access to higher education by making contributions to the UNHCR’s ‘15by30’ global pledge on refugee higher education and self-reliance.
The ‘15by30’ global pledge aims to expand higher education opportunities for refugees through the following: new or expanded programmes, scholarships, policy development, support for refugee student-led initiatives and partnerships between well-resourced and less-wealthy institutions in refugee-hosting countries to expand TVET, university scholarship, connected higher education, third-country education pathways, and bridging programmes that result in more opportunities for refugees to enrol in higher education.
Tapping African philanthropists
Professor Juma Shabani, the director of the doctoral school at the University of Burundi and the former director of development, coordination and monitoring of UNESCO programmes with a special focus on Africa, told University World News he hoped the UNHCR call for more funding finds “listening ears, open eyes and generous hands among private sectors and donor organisations”.
Shabani added: “This financial contribution is considered part of the private sector’s social responsibility towards promoting sustainable development. In fact, Africa is home to a growing number of super-rich individuals who have the potential to make their mark as African philanthropists for supporting higher education for refugees.”
The total private wealth currently held on the African continent is US$2.4 trillion and its millionaire population is expected to rise by 42% over the next 10 years, according to the latest Africa Wealth Report , which indicates that Africa’s top five wealthiest countries are South Africa, Egypt, Nigeria, Kenya and Morocco with 37,800, 16,100, 9,800, 7,700 and 5,800 millionaires (in US$), respectively.