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Writings on the manifold contemporary refugee crises and related higher education access issues often reference key international frameworks supporting higher education as a human right. However, the specific documents in question and their guidelines are rarely explored, though indeed examination of those principles makes clear the disjunction with educational practices in every national setting. This piece seeks to briefly make that comparison. 

Human Rights Discourse on Higher Education

The equal treatment of migrants (an umbrella term including refugees) in higher education relates to the human rights discourse in several ways, but most of the relevant protections pertain to equal access to educational institutions rather than experience in higher education once enrolled. The right to higher education is enshrined in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that “Higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit” (United Nations, 1963). This clear and aspirational statement has yet to be achieved 45 years on, though certainly progress has been made through the massification of higher education or rapid expansion of tertiary enrollment in the traditional age cohort. High tuition costs and insufficient supply of higher education are some of the barriers preventing equal access in the contemporary tertiary landscape.

Second, Article 13 of the ICESC (International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights) is frequently referenced in a discussion of higher education as a human right and has been ratified by 169 countries worldwide. Article 13 reads (in part):

Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity, and shall strengthen the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms… education shall enable all persons to participate effectively in a free society, promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations and all racial, ethnic or religious groups, and further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace (United Nations General Assembly, 1966). 

This clearly references the quality of education and thus relates to the issue of concern here: supports for tertiary-level students that enhance educational attainment. Article 13 does not prescribe quality assurance mechanisms, but indeed points toward the promotion of intercultural dialogue and participation (presumably at the highest levels) in free societies and the UN mission, all of which are facilitated by higher education.

            Third, the 1960 UNESCO Convention Against Discrimination in Education states, among other things, that the organization “while respecting the diversity of national educational systems, has the duty not only to proscribe any form of discrimination in education but also to promote equality of opportunity and treatment for all in education” (UNESCO General Conference, 1960). Again, this emphasis on equal treatment may be seen as necessitating equal supports for enrolled students.

Finally, the Global Compact on Migration directly addresses the obligations of host or receiving countries to provide skills training and education in their own national settings to all migrants in the context of short, medium and long-term plans for migration policy and integration (United Nations General Assembly, 2018). An emphasis on long term migrant integration indicates the need to facilitate higher education enrollment and attainment of this same population, which institutionalized supports make possible.

Not just equal access, but equal treatment

As noted, the existing supranational human rights framework provides strong support for equal higher education access and—less frequently discussed—equal treatment while enrolled in a higher education. However, while much of the contemporary literature on refugees and higher education (admittedly a limited pool) has logically focused on access as a vital first intervention for state and national actors, equal treatment in support of educational attainment has received much less attention. Definitional questions abound: What do we mean by equal treatment, and how is that similar to and different from scaffolding (a series of stage-appropriate supports that undergird student development moving toward independence, for instance a spectrum of writing support services from intensive individual tutoring to informal peer writing groups)? Are specific “accommodations” needed for refugee students who may speak multiple languages but are newly skilled in the language of instruction in a given context? Do the affinity centers (such as women’s centers, Latinx student centers, etc.) increasingly familiar on college and university campuses worldwide need to include “migrant centers”, and similarly, are tailored orientation and mentorship programs called for?

Existing human rights frameworks are reinforced by foundational documents of national law. However, contradictions in the practice of equal treatment in higher education are evident in every national case. While the US, for example, offers TRIO programs (federally funded student support and outreach programs targeting marginalized groups including first generation students) there is no comprehensive support model specifically aimed at refugee students at either the secondary school or post-secondary level. Although refugee numbers vary widely among nation-states, 1% of students with a refugee background currently access higher education worldwide (UNHCR), suggesting action in this area is urgently called for on a humanitarian level (as elaborated here). Further, argumentation around refugee higher education as an economic or labor market advantage for the host country has been made by the Brookings Institution and many other organizations.  

While I call for comprehensive action at the national level to address the gap between human rights commitments and higher education practice, individual colleges and universities have vital roles to play. Though efforts at online higher education are expanding, educational attainment through those initiatives remains marginal and thus brick and mortar colleges and universities must move towards more robust engagement. 

A commitment to active recruitment of students with a refugee background with attendant outreach and admissions counseling strategies developed would be a first step, with close attention to what and how equal treatment will be provided in any given institutional context. For instance, a student-led initiative at the University of Cincinnati has created an online tour video of campus in 11 languages. Additionally, the University of Buffalo makes available fact sheets to share with applicant family and friends in 16 languages including Burmese and Vietnamese. Additionally, Macquarie University (Australia) operates the LEAP UP Macquarie Mentoring program,  which seeks to match current university students with refugee students at the secondary level to help them transition to higher education. 

A two-pronged approach incorporating both access and support programs would further the meaningful implementation of human rights discourse; refugee community engagement is within reach and requires the investment of leaders at the institutional, state, and national levels. A legacy of meaningful inclusion and translation of the UN discourse to practice would be a testament to any leader in these various spheres.  



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