The politics of higher education for refugees in a global movement for primary education.

Author:Dryden-Peterson, Sarah


In the context of Education for All (EFA) and the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), global movements for expanded access to education have focused on primary education. In refugee situations, where one-quarter of refugees do not have access to primary school and two-thirds do not have access to secondary school, donors and agencies resist supporting higher education with arguments that, at great cost, it stands to benefit a small and elite group. At the same time, refugees are clear that progression to higher levels of education is integrally connected with their future livelihoods and future stability for their regions of origin. This paper examines where higher education fits within a broader framework of refugee education and the politics of its provision, with attention to the policies and priorities of UN agencies, NGOs, national governments, and refugees themselves.


Dans le contexte des initiatives Education pour tous et Objectifs du millenaire pour le developpement, les mouvements internationaux pour elargir l'acces a l'education sont axes sur l'enseignement primaire. Dans le cas des refugies, dont le quart n'a pas acces a l'ecole primaire et les deux tiers, a l'ecole secondaire, les donateurs et les agences hesitent a soutenir l'education superieure arguant que celle-ci, d'emblee plus couteuse, ne profitera qu'a un groupe restreint et privilegie. Parallelement, les refugies croient fermement que la progression vers de plus hauts niveaux d'education fait partie integrante d'un gagnepain futur et d'une eventuelle stabilite dans leurs regions d'origine. Cet article examine ou se situe l'education post-secondaire dans un cadre elargi de l'education des refugies ainsi que les politiques pour sa prestation, et s'attarde sur les politiques et les priorites des agences des Nations Unies, des ONG, des gouvernements nationaux et des refugies eux-memes.


Access to education is a basic human right and a central component of development strategies linked to poverty reduction, holding promises of stability, economic growth, and better lives for children, families, and communities. In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognized compulsory education as a universal entitlement. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979) called for no discrimination in educational provision for men and women, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) affirmed the right of all children to free and compulsory primary education (Article 28.1.a). The global education movement is built on these visions and is expressed in the Dakar Education for All Framework for Action (2000) and the Millennium Development Goals (2000). These frameworks specify the need to establish quality access to education for all and to do so by 2015.

Higher education has remained largely outside of the global education movement, within which the focus has instead been on primary education. Through a synthesis of literature and policy analysis, this paper explores the place of higher education for refugees in situations where vast numbers of children do not have access even to primary school. First, I discuss the politics of provision of higher education through the lens of the global education movement and its particular commitment to equity. Second, I survey the state of educational access for refugees at all levels of education, placing higher education within a continuum of education including primary, secondary, and tertiary education. Finally, I examine the particular importance of higher education for refugees and how it can contribute to the global education movement, including building upon the commitment to equity.

Higher Education and the Global Education Movement

Access to a complete course of quality primary education is the main objective of the global education movement as outlined in the Dakar Framework for Action and the Millennium Development Goals. (1) There is some emphasis on secondary education, life skills training, and adult literacy and continuing education, (2) but higher education is not mentioned in these seminal documents. The global priorities for education are rooted in both the geography and the philosophy of the movement. They are borne of a recognition that the greatest challenges to educational access are in the least developed countries (LDCs), geographically centred in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, particularly in countries affected by conflict or undergoing reconstruction. (3)

There has been remarkable progress in many countries toward educational access for all, such that, globally, the number of out-of-school children decreased from 115 million to fewer than 70 million between 2000 and 2010. (4) Progress in conflict-affected states, however, has been more difficult; UNESCO estimates that 28 million out-of-school children live in low and lower-middle income conflict-affected states, which represents 42 per cent of the world's total. (5) In Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), for example, only 52 per cent of children are enrolled in primary school, (6) and just 49 per cent of those beginning primary school complete the primary cycle. (7) Further, countries that have recently universalized access to primary education have often done so at the expense of quality, such that even children enrolled in school are not gaining the desired skills, knowledge, and competencies. (8) In this situation, the immediacy and pressing nature of barriers to accessing quality primary education overshadow concurrent barriers in higher education.

The numbers of children without access to primary education in much of the global South necessarily narrows the pipeline to higher education and raises philosophical questions related to equity. Fewer than three per cent of the eligible age group have access to higher education in Africa, (9) what sociologist Martin Trow would characterize as an "elite" system of higher education. (10) In the conflict-affected DRC, for example, only 0.4 per cent of the population accesses university, (11) and 70 per cent of higher education institutions are in the capital city, Kinshasa. (12) While Altbach is confident that all education systems globally are moving toward mass enrolment (between 20 and 30 per cent) and even universal enrolment (more than 30 per cent), (13) many LDCs, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and those that are affected by conflict, continue to lag behind in this "massification." (14)

Despite the small reach of higher education in the global South, the educational policies of many of these countries strongly favour higher education. Using 1999 data from the UNESCO "Statistical Yearbook," Su reports that in non-OECD countries, the relative education expenditure is "stunningly" higher for tertiary than primary. In Malawi, for example, public expenditure per pupil as a proportion of GNP per capita is 9 per cent at primary, 27 per cent at secondary, and 1,580 per cent at tertiary; the relative ratio of education expenditure is therefore 3 between secondary and primary and 176 between tertiary and primary. (15) In post-genocide Rwanda, higher education was conceived as the primary mechanism of economic development such that in 2000, higher education funding made up one-third of the budget allocation to education. While higher education in Rwanda has thrived, the primary education system still falters. (16)

Higher education is indeed expensive, and state support for it reduces resources for other educational endeavours. Moreover, it perpetuates inequalities in already divided societies. Psacharopoulos and Patrinos show that the returns to education in non-OECD countries are significantly higher at the primary level and moderately higher at the secondary level than at the tertiary level. (17) Research is conclusive that mass expansion of higher education reduces income inequality only when labour market conditions are right. (18) In LDCs, subsidies for higher education are often correlated with higher GINI coefficients, (19) which indicates increased inequality, although this is beginning to change in new knowledge economies, where there is rapid expansion in employment opportunities involving the production of ideas and information. (20) In cases of underdevelopment and of conflict, the creation and expansion of knowledge economies is rare as well as slow. In these contexts, the wealthy benefit disproportionately from public investment in higher education due to what Su calls "exclusive participation" (21) of the wealthy and limited access for others. Existing policies favouring higher education in many LDCs are not based in forward-looking economic policies and instead can only be explained by the political power of dominant elites who influence budget allocations in favour of subsidizing higher education for their own children.

Large-scale investment in higher education in countries of the global South, particularly in conflict-affected states, is conceived of as being at the expense of investment in under-resourced primary and secondary systems. Given that this investment does not appear to match the goals of equity that underpin the Dakar Framework for Action and the Millennium Development goals, higher education in these contexts is not a priority for donors.

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