The urgency of transforming refugee education: 4 opportunities to enable inclusion

refugee children studying

At a roundtable on the sidelines of the Transforming Education Summit and the September 2022 United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), refugee representatives, donors, UN agencies, and international organizations affirmed that refugee education must be at the heart of the transforming education and humanitarian agendas.

The Center for Universal Education organized the roundtable to discuss a forthcoming paper outlining the persistent tensions stalling refugee education and the difficult but necessary steps all concerned parties must work together to address.

Transforming refugee education requires meaningful inclusion of refugees in national education systems, both in school and in policy dialogue. As many participants highlighted, meaningful approaches to inclusion will require state and global actors to make good on their commitments to refugee education. Beyond increasing financing to national governments committed to helping refugees, participants discussed opportunities to enable inclusion through support to the primary actors locally and nationally:

1. Refugee students: Despite widespread agreement that refugee children and youth must be at the center of decisionmaking about their education and their future, stakeholders grapple with questions about how to best engage and lift up their voices in decisionmaking processes. Some student networks have emerged globally and nationally, and while there is an increase in the commitment to include them in international events such as UNGA, it is far from the norm. In order to move from ad hoc engagement efforts to comprehensive strategies, a mapping of the current approaches and their impact would be useful to inform the formation of institutionalized efforts. Beyond engagement in policy and practice, refugee students also have strong views on the lack of donor support for the continuation of their education beyond primary school. For refugee students to continue their education, additional funding should be complemented by an effort to remove the hurdles they face in certifying and accrediting their learning.

2. Local organizations: While investment in local organizations has long been recognized as important to strengthening their capacity, expanding their impact, and ensuring longer-term sustainability, funding for localization in the refugee response—including refugee education—is insufficient. Supporting local organizations may require greater coordination and administrative oversight by donors and national organizations, but the benefits outweigh the effort. Local organizations can deliver refugee education support at a lower cost than larger organizations and can respond to the needs of refugees by employing local and refugee staff who speak the language, tailor programming to cultural needs, and better respond to issues experienced locally.

3. Teachers: Enabling and supporting teachers who are delivering education to refugee students is critical to ensuring they have the training and resources to deliver inclusive education. Through teacher unions, host community teachers are often the first to extend help to refugee teachers, including supporting their well-being and helping them locate employment in host-country schools, where they play an invaluable role in helping refugee children settle in and offer mother tongue language lessons and much more. Refugee teachers and teachers’ unions are not often part of coordinated humanitarian responses—missing out on valuable insights and networks.

4. Governments: Where governments commit to a strategy to include refugee students in their national education system, the international community needs to step up with more than funding. Too often, lack of coordination among international organizations pulls national governments in different directions. More refugee host governments would benefit from exchanging knowledge and technical know-how in the early days of a humanitarian response. The global education community would also serve those governments more effectively by making existing information and research on refugee education more accessible and practical with an emphasis on what works at the policy and practice levels.

Refugee inclusion in national education systems requires governments to have strong political resolve that must be matched by sustained funding from the international community. This process, however, remains complex and fraught with challenges. More explicit support to and cooperation with refugee students, local organizations, teachers, and national governments would go a long way to resolving persistent tensions and contributing to the transformation of refugee education.