Coordinating higher education response in emergencies is a challenging task for three main reasons:

  1. firstly, because of the wide array of situations at stake, ranging from humanitarian interventions to development plans in different contexts such as recovery, protracted crises and conflict-affected societies;
  2. secondly, because of the variety of organizations and actors operating at various levels, embracing notably the humanitarian and development fields;
  3. thirdly, because of the very nature of the tertiary education system whose  main feature is institutional autonomy, which makes the global academic community a rather elusive constituency. 

In this regard it is important to keep in mind the slow emergence of the higher education sector in emergencies both within the education global movement and in the field of education in emergencies, which until recently has considerably neglected in both contexts. Within the humanitarian context, until 2015 or so, access to higher education for refugees was almost always led by UNHCR through the DAFI Programme, even if some additional academic opportunities have always existed through scholarship schemes as part of international assistance for conflict-affected societies or just as programs offered by universities, philanthropies, academics, groups, and individuals in civil society working to provide refugees with education.

The DAFI Programme was extremely important when it was launched in 1992 to open up avenues of higher education to refugees. “It has played a fundamental role in bridging the gap between the demand and available opportunities for higher education for refugees (…). It has enrolled over 9,300 refugees in higher education scholarships during its existence. Following continuous growth, over 2,300 students in 40 countries of asylum benefitted from DAFI scholarships in 2015” (UNHCR, DAFI REPORT, 2015).  

However, the Syrian conflict was a true turning point for the sector of higher education in emergencies, given its unprecedented scale and the impact it had on Syria and across the region, with a large influx of Syrian refugees into Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and other countries, notably in Europe, and also a large number of IDPs. As regards the size of the problem, though figures remain somewhat controversial, according to UNESCO, in Syria prior to 2011 gross enrolment ratios in higher education access and degrees was 26% (IRENE LORISKA, LEON CREMONINI and MALAZ SAFAR JALANI 2015). This means that there was an unparalleled higher education demand among Syrian refugees of university age (18-24) which created a very unique and challenging situation compared with other humanitarian crises. A second point to be underlined regards the fact that civil society and the academic community atglobal level anticipated the need for action and a number of new initiatives were developed to help address this pressing need in face of the immobility of international organizations and the lack of acoordinated global response.

These two trends together, plus the coincidence that, at the same time, higher education targets were included in the then in the making Agenda of sustainable development goals, made the years around 2015 a turning point for higher education in emergencies, even if in 2018, at the time of writing, there is still a long way to go to achieve a paradigm shift.

Some highlights on the lessons learned from the Syrian crisis:

♦ Lack of accurate data on the size of the student population and on the loss in higher educationparticipation as well as on the gap to fill with intervention.

♦ Lack of a platform or any mechanism whatsoever to assess the needs and design and implement aresponse, let alone ensure that it is coordinated. 

♦ Emerging awareness that the tertiary sector should be further prioritized in crisis situations.

♦ Emerging evidence that the academic community should play its role as the main actor for theprovision of higher education in emergencies.

Furthermore, the Syrian crisis made it crystal clear that the DAFI Program, as the only humanitarian tool available to address higher education for refugees, was falling well short of expectationsand requirements. The problem was not only one of lack of capacity by UNHCR as the managing entity of this program, to deliver more, better and faster, but was also one of a pressing need of paradigm change in the way provision of higher education in general and in emergencies in particular should be seen as playing a key role in both preventing conflict and rebuilding fractured post-conflict societies.

Though a turning point – since it opened up to future policy opportunities – the Syrian crisis unfortunately remains at the same time the expression of a major failure of the international community to avoid the devastating impact of the conflict on higher education.It is telling that the first study prepared for the European Union to “assist in the design of a future program by the EU to enhance access to further and higher education for young Syrians whohad to drop-out of formal education, especially internally displaced students inside Syria and Syrian refugees across the region, with a focus on Jordan and Lebanon, but also on Turkey and Iraq” (Terms of Reference, RENE LORISKA, LEON CREMONINI and MALAZ SAFAR JALANI 2015) was produced only in March 2015, four years after the conflict started in Syria and when in the region, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, as well as Egypt and Iraq were already home to millions of Syrian refugees.

It is relevant to realize that back in 2016, at the time of the drafting of the Agenda for Humanity, higher education in emergencies was still completely ignored. However, it should be underlined that this did not stop some countries and other stakeholders from committing at the World Humanitarian Summit, held in May 2016, to focus their future action on promoting higher education opportunities for refugees and other vulnerable groups.

To sum up, as in all transition periods when old and new trends get mixed up, the rise of higher education as a sector in itself is an ongoing process shaped by some advancements and set-backs in an environment that requires change in order to achieve more, better and faster results. Within the ongoing change, a consensus seems to emerge that expansion of academic opportunities and increasing differentiation in terms of the variety of institutions and providers are two important goals to be achieved. Furthermore, it is now clear that conflict as “development in reverse” requires greater investment in higher education. Important as these goals are, they might however not be enough to produce paradigm change. In this regard, relevant questions to be raised are the following: what should be the architecture of higher education in emergencies to a) sit across and strengthen existing general coordination structures in a complementary way, and b) bring on board the global academic community as the main missing constituency? In what ways can separate needs assessments and education planning processes be coherently brought together? How can the domestic education leadership, spanning both humanitarian and development aid architectures, be combined?

In the World Bank Report on Reshaping the Future – Education and post-conflict reconstruction (2005), a number of key principles are listed that apply to education and post-conflict reconstruction. Though referring to education in general, they are very relevant when considering the higher educationsector. Therefore they are reproduced below, but refocused on “higher education” complemented witha few other important points:

Key Principles

• Higher Education commands high priority in both the initial humanitarian phase of national and international response and in conflict rebuilding phase.

• Every higher education system has the potential to either aggravate the conditions that lead toviolent conflict or to heal them, the unavoidable conclusion must be that ignoring education, orpostponing it, is not an option.

• Even when it is part of a humanitarian response higher education is a development activity andmust be undertaken with a developmental perspective if it is to contribute to reversing thedamage and to building resilience to prevent further violent conflict.

• That said, quality higher education in emergencies provides protection, contributes to selfrelianceand gives hope for the future.

Task Force







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