Beyond basic education: exploring opportunities for higher learning in Kenyan refugee camps.

Author:Wright, Laura-Ashley


This paper seeks to elucidate the socio-cultural and economic benefits of higher education in refugee contexts. NGO and UNHCR initiatives in Dadaab and Kakuma camps are used as a reference point for discussing the challenges, best practices, and potential of higher and adult learning in contexts of protracted exile. This small-scale, qualitative study seeks to understand what opportunities for higher education exist for those living in Kenyan refugee camps, and do existing opportunities yield "social benefits" beyond those accrued by the refugees themselves? Drawing upon interviews with practitioners, observation in schools and learning centres, and data from refugee-service providers, our findings are primarily descriptive in nature and explore the myriad ways in which opportunities for higher learning can strengthen refugee communities in countries of asylum. We contend that although Kenya's encampment policies limit the potential economic and social benefits of refugee education on a national level, opportunities for refugees to pursue higher education are still immensely valuable in that they bolster refugee service provision in the camps and provide refugees with the skills and knowledge needed to increase the effectiveness of durable solutions at both an individual and societal level, be they repatriation, local integration, or third-country resettlement.


Cet article cherche a determiner les avantages socioculturels et economiques d'une education superieure pour les refugies. Des initiatives d'ONG et du Haut Commissariat des Nations Unies pour les refugies (UNHCR) dans les camps de Dadaab et de Kakuma servent de points de reference pour une discussion des defis, des pratiques exemplaires et des possibilites d'une education superieure et d'un enseignement aux adultes dans des contextes d'exil prolonge. Cette etude qualitative a petite echelle cherche a determiner les possibilites d'offrir une education superieure aux habitants des camps de refugies au Kenya et a etablir si les occasions existantes donnent lieu a des > autres que ceux qui sont acquis par les refugies eux-memes. Fondees sur des entrevues avec des praticiens, des observations dans les ecoles et les centres d'apprentissage ainsi que des donnees obtenues de fournisseurs de services aux refugies, nos constatations sont essentiellement descriptives et explorent les multiples facons dont les possibilites d'une education superieure peuvent renforcer les communautes de refugies dans les pays d'asile. Nous soutenons qu'en depit des politiques du Kenya sur le regroupement des refugies qui limitent les avantages economiques et sociaux potentiels de l'education des refugies a l'echelle nationale, les possibilites qu'ont les refugies de poursuivre des etudes superieures demeurent precieuses ence qu'elles renforcent la prestation de services dans les camps et fournissent aux refugies les competences et les connaissances qui sont necessaires a l'etablissement de solutions durables plus efficaces, tant au niveau individuel que societal, qu'il s'agisse de rapatriement, d'integration locale ou de reinstallation dans un tiers pays.


Debates concerning higher education in the Global South, and Sub-Saharan Africa in particular, have been at the forefront of international education policy and scholarship since the 1970s. (1) The key question at hand has been whether or not higher education Provides valuable social benefits at large, or simply posits personal rewards to those who have better access. In essence: do the private returns outweigh the relative social benefits of higher education in a development context? Until recently, this dialogue has focused on the outcomes of higher education for individuals within the nation-state system, but has rarely been extended to contexts of protracted exile. This paper seeks to address this gap by elucidating the value of higher education in protracted refugee situations with specific reference to Kenya.

We suggest that opportunities for higher and adult education, in contexts of displacement, can yield important "social benefits" beyond the personal gain accrued by individual refugees themselves. Such benefits include, but are not limited to: strengthening the quantity and quality of the teaching force within the camps, bolstering parental support for and engagement with their children's education (particularly girls' education), and promoting primary and secondary school attendance by ensuring opportunities, be they limited, to pursue higher learning. However, before delving into the case of higher learning in Kenyan camps, we will first contextualize our findings with a brief overview of the key debates concerning higher education in Africa.

Higher Education in Africa

From the 1970s to the late 1990s, the World Bank viewed public spending on higher education as a misdirection of resources, stating that individuals reaped far greater benefit from higher education on a personal rather than collective level. Institutions for higher education were seen as "enclaves of privilege," and the international community supported this position by channelling almost all funding to basic education. (2) The prioritization of "Education for All," limited to basic education, resulted in a severe deterioration of higher education in Africa. (3) This focus was supported by four key arguments. First, the expansion of the education regime to include higher education institutions would reduce the quality of education at all levels. (4) Second, it would foster a disjuncture between supply and demand in regions where the labour market is unable to absorb graduates. (5) Third, higher education often excludes disadvantaged and marginalized groups, (6) as developing countries lack the financial markets needed to provide student loans; corruption among university placements and scholarships is also widely cited. (7) This leads to the fourth line of argument: a very small percentage of the population can access higher education, yet this group receives a disproportionately large percentage of educational budgets. (8)

At present, one quarter of international aid to the education sector in Sub-Saharan Africa is targeted to higher education. (9) This reflects a change since the 1990s to a more positive outlook, with higher education being favourably repositioned in development thinking. (10) Part of the change can be attributed to the 1999 World Bank report, Knowledge for Development, which showed that private rates of return for higher education were similar to those of secondary education, recommending the promotion of distance learning in development contexts. (11) Moreover, the 2002 World Bank Report, Constructing Knowledge Societies: New Challenges for Tertiary Education, signified a shift in the Bank's position and emphasized the potential of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and distance learning, the role of higher education in development and economic growth, and the importance of a holistic education system as a "global public good." (12) Unfortunately, despite these developments, 2008 enrolment rates for higher education in Africa stood at 6 per cent, compared to the global average of 26 per cent and 70 per cent in North America and Western Europe. (13)

Higher Education in a Refugee Context

Investment in higher education may be even more controversial apropos refugee populations (see also Dryden-Peterson, this issue). With severe restrictions on movement, commerce, and citizenship rights for "warehoused" (14) populations in Kakuma and Dadaab, it is difficult to see how providing higher education within the camps would forward national development along the lines specified in the literature. For instance, higher education is unlikely to benefit Kenya's national economy or social fabric, unless the Kenyan government were to revise its policies of encampment and facilitate local integration. Moreover, given the long-term effort and investment needed to provide opportunities for higher education in remote and under-resourced locations (such as refugee camps), and the fact that primary and secondary education also remain in desperate need of additional assistance and funding, it is reasonable to question whether the international community should prioritize higher/adult education and training at all.

In this paper we take the position that higher education in refugee situations is critical not only to achieving socioeconomic development, but also to bolstering durable solutions for both individuals and society. As an investment, it is therefore as essential in refugee contexts as in development contexts.

First, higher education and training can provide refugees with the skills and knowledge needed to increase the effectiveness of durable solutions, be they repatriation, local integration, or third-country resettlement. When speaking to repatriation, there is no shortage of research indicating the critical role for higher education in nation building and peace making, particularly in countries recovering from war. (15) The Task Force on Higher Education and Society states that higher education "is essential to national social and economic development." (16) The benefits of higher education, including increased tax revenue, better national health, reduced population growth, stronger government, and improved technology, (17) apply not only to a context of repatriation but also to local integration. Moreover, in terms of third-country resettlement, a recent report by the NGO Network of Integration Focal Points indicates that efforts in education, vocational training, and language learning assist refugees to play an active role in their own integration, enabling them and their children to "be more successful and more active participants in society." (18)

With the average time spent as a refugee doubling from nine to seventeen years over the last decade, (19) Zeus notes that "we cannot...

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