Across the world, armed conflict, instability, drought and famine are driving more people from their homes for longer periods of time. On average, displacement lasts almost 20 years. This means that displaced children and youth are likely to experience most, if not all, of their education outside their countries of origin.
Kenya, for instance, hosts one of the largest refugee populations in the world, 150 000 of whom live in Kakuma Refugee Camp and Kalobeyei Settlement in the north. For many, Kakuma is the only home they know, and their only opportunity for education.
Education has therefore become central to humanitarian aid and long-term development efforts, usually carried out by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in partnership with other organisations and host governments. This has increased the number of children that can access pre-primary, primary, and secondary school – though refugees are still marginalised.
Higher education is a significant challenge. Just 1% of refugees in the world are able to continue education beyond secondary school. Legally, their movement is often restricted – so they can’t access learning institutions – and if they can, they often cannot afford tuition and boarding fees.
When higher education is available, it is traditionally through scholarships. This means the refugees have to go where the higher education institutions are. Though these programmes can be hugely beneficial to individuals and their communities, opportunities are limited, competitive, and costly. They also tend to exclude older learners, heads of households (on whom others rely), and those who have finished schooling in a different country.
It’s a model that isn’t sustainable or scalable. Large numbers of young people are left with few opportunities to continue formal education.
I did a study on a burgeoning university hub in Kakuma Refugee Camp that is testing a subsidised tuition model. It’s a cost-sharing programme which brings higher education to refugees and the communities that host them, who also have challenges accessing universities.
I found that while bringing higher education to remote areas – where refugee camps are often located – is a good way to expand access, cost is still an issue. Because refugees can’t work, they struggle to cover the fees, even when subsidised. It’s crucial that future programmes get the fee-subsidy balance right.
In 2015, Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology (MMUST) – a Kenyan public university – built a satellite campus on the outskirts of Kakuma Refugee Camp. Today, nearly 460 students are enrolled in the university’s certificate, diploma, and degree programmes. More than half of them are refugees, and the rest are Kenyans, largely from the camp’s surrounding host community.
A group of 26 refugees were the first cohort in a pilot cost-sharing programme, which they helped to create.
They were all men, and most of them had been working in the camp as teachers and social workers, taking advantage of opportunities to learn offered by UNHCR and partner organisations. Some had earned certificates for on-the-job training, while others had spent their free time studying at one of the camp’s online learning centres. Many were ineligible for existing scholarships because of their age or because they completed portions of schooling outside of Kenya.
The pilot programme was designed to accommodate the challenges of covering fees. It has a cost-sharing structure where students contribute 40% of their tuition fees, UNHCR covers 40%, and the university waives the remaining 20%.
This is a unique approach because refugees choose their programme of study, and contribute to tuition costs as they work and study.
The first graduates of this pilot partnership continue working and pursuing their studies in Kakuma. One is now a part-time lecturer at the university. Several have applied to and enrolled in a newly offered Master’s programme.
But even this reduced tuition structure remains a challenge.
Most of the pilot cohort couldn’t cover their fees while earning an “incentive” salary. Because refugees are legally not allowed to work, they are compensated with a monetary “incentive,” which is lower than the minimum wage.
The university tried to adapt to the refugees’ needs, allowing students to attend class and sit exams despite late tuition payments. But upholding this commitment put a strain on both the individuals and university resources. Some students completed their studies but weren’t given the accreditation for the degree because of the outstanding fees.
The current payment plan is being reassessed, and more experimentation is needed to reach an ideal balance for refugee contributions in a context where earnings are so limited.
Though significant challenges remain, this pilot cost-sharing programme has offered some valuable lessons about the need to experiment and innovate in low-resource contexts. Bringing universities to refugee populations can improve access, but they need more financial support.
Opportunities could present themselves through the arrival of new higher education actors who are showing interest in the region. The Turkana West University Campus, for instance, is set to open in the next few months. Partnership with MMUST means shared resources and physical infrastructure, which will keep organisational costs down. Hopefully the growing network will lower the costs for students too.
Mohamud Hure, education officer with UNHCR Kakuma, contributed to the research for this article