2020 was an unprecedented year, including for the young refugee women and men pursuing higher education through the UNHCR tertiary refugee scholarship programme (Albert Einstein German Refugee Academic Initiative – DAFI). Closure of universities worldwide began in March as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic began to take hold. Students were sent home from school in many locations, and the transition to remote or home-based learning commenced. The process was not an easy or straightforward one: students reported feeling stressed about suspended study, uncomfortable with online or distance learning modalities, and neglected where remote learning was inaccessible due to economic, logistical, geographic, or other factors. As the pandemic and its impacts continued, the effects of the ensuing global economic slowdown became apparent: persons of concern located in already economically challenging circumstances experienced more pressure on household resources and real threats to overall well-being.
The threat of backsliding on gains made in refugee education across the board due to COVID-19 was immense. Students at all levels were impacted by the closure of schools and the accompanying loss of access to safe spaces and threat to education continuity. The effect of school closures on girls’ retention and eventual likelihood of return to school may have detrimental impacts on equitable enrolment of young women refugees in higher education for years to come.
The year was not only one of difficulty but also of opportunity as the demand for innovation in education became acute. The importance of access to connectivity and digital skills became increasingly evident the world over. New partners came to the fore and novel initiatives were launched to ensure that learning continued to the greatest extent possible outside of the conventional school environment. Higher education students—refugee and host community alike— experienced uneven access to connectivity, hardware, and teaching and learning content, depending on their location and access to resources. Those in urban areas transitioned to remote learning more easily whereas those located in underserved rural areas, or who returned to refugee camps, experienced the digital divide to a greater extent.
The DAFI programme’s well-established policies and tested procedures have supported harmonised, efficient, and accountable implementation for almost three decades. This remained the case during this turbulent year. The programme’s long experience and solid foundation allowed the programme to respond in a timely and student-centred way as the pandemic began to impact tertiary scholars. With universities closing and many students being sent home from student housing or forced to move back to refugee camp or settlement situations, DAFI quickly adapted policies to ensure that students’ support continued, that learning and teaching materials could be accessed to the greatest extent possible, and that students’ safety and stress were monitored and supported. UNHCR’s Tertiary Education Team convened webinars during the first quarter of 2020 to update DAFI programme staff on procedural and budgetary implications, provided technical support to individual country programmes and adjusted monitoring and reporting systems to meet the new realities of learning under COVID.
In 2020, 7,343 young refugee women and men from 47 countries of origin were enrolled on DAFI scholarships in 53 countries around the world.
Female students represented 40 per cent of the total DAFI programme. Syrian refugees were the largest country of origin cohort, making up 27 per cent of DAFI students. Students from Afghanistan comprised 16 per cent and those from South Sudan 14 per cent.
Programmes in sub-Saharan Africa accounted for the largest share of DAFI students with 46 per cent of the total DAFI student body, while those in the Middle East and North Africa comprised 26 per cent, followed by Asia with 16 per cent. Europe accounted for 10 per cent and the Americas for 1 per cent of all DAFI students. The more heavily subscribed DAFI programmes are also representative of some of the largest or most protracted refugee situations. Ethiopia had the largest share of DAFI students with 816, followed by Turkey with 720 students, Kenya with 567,
Pakistan with 536 and Jordan with 531 students.
While university closures caused by the pandemic meant that many students fell behind in their studies or experienced delayed graduation, DAFI scholars used the situation to create opportunities for themselves and to contribute to their communities and the countries that host them. Students banded together to collect donations of money and supplies for families in need; they conducted information and awareness-raising campaigns on COVID-19 and tutored younger students who were out of school; they made masks and soap and distributed supplies; and medical and health students joined community health workers conducting screening and health sessions in refugee camps and hosting areas. These acts of volunteerism and activism contributed to the overall COVID-19 response and benefited host and refugee communities alike, further demonstrating the valuable impact that refugee students can make wherever they are.
It is important to note that the 2020 DAFI student cohort was smaller than in previous years, with only 402 new scholarships awarded, and that programme staff and students faced unprecedented challenges, the ramifications of which will be felt for years to come. 3,026 young people applied for the DAFI scholarship while only 402 new scholarships were awarded. In order to maximize resources, DAFI programme staff work with local universities and lobby Ministries of Education or Higher Education to waive fees, create refugee-specific scholarships or permit refugees to enrol under the same conditions as nationals. Cost sharing agreements with universities waiving fees, and UNHCR covering living allowances for refugee students, are examples of the strong partnerships enjoyed with higher education institutions in some countries. Students who were enrolled in 2020 experienced delays in starting their studies and many will be using the coming years to catch up on time missed and will have their planned graduation dates delayed. Often in virtual graduation ceremonies, 1,401 students were awarded their degrees, poised to add value to the communities that host them and inspiring the thousands of young people that follow in their footsteps.
This year’s report is entitled Aiming Higher. Aiming Higher is also the headline of UNHCR’s global fundraising campaign for secondary and tertiary education, which was launched in 2020. Building on the experience and commitments of the Global Refugee Forum, the international community is responding, recognising the need for education opportunities for all. Perhaps the experience of so many children, parents, students, and academic communities deprived of access to their schools, teachers and peers in the context of education, which is central to so many of our lives, created a universal moment where the importance of education for all became undeniable and obvious.
In the pursuit of 15 per cent enrolment of young women and men refugees by the year 2030, we are together Aiming Higher. As we move forward towards the 15 per cent milestone, the DAFI programme remains the cornerstone of UNHCR’s investments in tertiary refugee students. The DAFI programme is also Aiming Higher, having redoubled its efforts to achieve parity among women and men enrolled in the programme; to expand access to students in Asia and the Americas who demand and deserve greater access to higher education; and to amplify the voice of all refugee students who strive to enter and complete tertiary education and to benefit from the opportunity and promise it carries with it.
The voices of the students on these pages are but a small handful of the thousands of refugee students attending university across the globe and the many more thousands who came before them.
Their ambitions and dedication demand that we all aim higher to ensure that being a refugee does not mean that higher education is out of reach. Refugee students all over the world are Aiming Higher, overcoming incredible barriers, cobbling together resources, and carving out time to ensure that they do their best and succeed, exploit their talents and contribute to the countries and communities that host them. We invite you to join us in Aiming Higher for refugee higher education and the 15by30 target.