For young people who find themselves stranded in another country, higher education offers a way to assimilate into new surroundings, become familiar with the culture and develop the skills they’ll need to not only survive, but prosper.
There are a number of institutions across the world trying to help; one such is the University of the People.
The University of the People is a not-for-profit, online university, which offers tuition-free education to those with a high-school qualification and proficiency in English. The only fees are for examinations and there are scholarships available for those who cannot afford these. This means that the institution offers entirely free, accredited degrees to students all over the world.
The Syrian refugee crisis
The university announced its first refugee scholarship programme several years ago. However, with the events in Syria worsening, last September a new scheme was launched to aid those displaced as a result of the conflict.
Shai Reshef, president of the university, was kind enough to speak to us about how it’s been going so far.
Since they started the programme, Shai tells me, 400 Syrian refugee students have begun studying and a further 2,000 applicants are on the waiting list. Perhaps surprisingly, around half of all of those who are studying are still based in Syria itself, with the rest living throughout Turkey, Lebanon, Germany, the UK and elsewhere.
The online format of the university means that students only need a connection to the internet to study, making it possible for those who are not only financially limited, but also culturally or practically unable to get an education they otherwise couldn’t. It’s allowing students living in one of the most war-torn parts of the world today to continue progressing with their lives.
From small beginnings
When the university was founded, the focus wasn’t on refugee groups. The initial goal was to help every qualified student access a quality education, regardless of their financial situation. However, as time went on it became clear that refugees could benefit significantly.
In 2010, the earthquake which hit Haiti crippled the infrastructure of the country: of the 32 major universities, 28 were completely destroyed. Thousands of people lost their lives, and millions were displaced because of this disaster. As the country began rebuilding itself, a way to help students continue with their education was vital.
The University of the People, with help from the Clinton Global Initiative, set up a scholarship scheme, offering free places to Haitians. With many of those studying living in camps, without access to the internet, the university worked in partnership with on-the-ground charities to set up Student Computer Centres, giving students internet and computer access. Online education became a way for them to continue with their education, despite incredibly difficult living arrangements.
How online education could be the key
Online education offers many benefits to refugees, and Shai hopes that other institutions will follow their method. The “university in a box” set-up provides complete flexibility; students can study wherever they are, provided they have a computer and an internet connection. Open education resources and open source technology mean that not even textbooks are required. For people who are unsure about how long they’ll be in any one place, the solution is perfect.
A major issue faced by the higher education community has been how to validate the credentials of Syrian refugee students, who, for obvious reasons, may not have their certificates with them. The University of the People solves this issue by allowing students to get started regardless.
Furthermore, the university is in talks with other institutions to implement a relationship with local universities similar to the one it currently has with UC Berkeley, wherein students can transfer to a campus after two years of studying online. After two years, refugee students are more likely to be in a stable position, as well as having a better knowledge of the local language and culture. This will enable them to acclimatise more easily to university life in a different country. It also means that issues about missing documents are resolved, as they will have official certification from an accredited American university, the University of the People
The university is also planning on offering students the ability to study in Arabic, to help those whose English isn’t at the required standard. The course would begin with two modules in English in the first year and slowly increases over the duration of the programme.
The charitable spirit of higher education
When Shai Reshef announced the university in January 2009, he expected that enough people would get on board to make it a success. What shocked him, he says, was the scale of the response. A day later the story was covered in the New York Times, and a huge number of people began offering their help.
The university’s council includes such respected figures as the president of New York University, John Sexton; Oxford Vice-Chancellor, Sir Colin Lucas; UC Berkeley Chancellor, Nicholas Dirks; and a host of other highly qualified figures. The institute has partnerships with Hewlett Packard and Microsoft, and was supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Over 3,000 volunteers help run the university, including lecturers and support staff.
In the midst of some of the disturbing language directed towards the Syrian refugee crisis, and the lack of a constructive, collaborative international response, the response from higher education offers some reassurance that this sector, at least, has not lost its humanity.
“The goodwill is out there,” says Shai, “people are willing to offer their time and money to help others.”