Virtually Educated: The Case for and Conundrum of Online Higher Education for Refugees

Feredeby Martha K. Ferede, Consultant GEM Report, Lecturer in International and Comparative Higher Education, Sciences-Po


In addition to increased provision of primary and secondary schooling, refugees also need pathways into accredited tertiary education programs. As was highlighted in the recent GEM Report paper with UNHCR, only 1% of refugees have access to higher education. In recent years, several online initiatives have risen to meet the demand. This blog considers their potential and pitfalls.


Why it matters

Life skills training, Iraq

Higher education, including TVET, improves the viability of the three durable solutions for refugees: repatriation back home, integration into host countries or resettlement into third countries. As outlined by INEE, among other benefits, tertiary education serves a protective function while also increasing refugees’ aptitude and capacity, opportunities to be assets to host countries, and to develop skill sets necessary to rebuild their countries.


Online Higher Education Initiatives

Since 2010, several organizations have begun to offer online higher education for refugees (see Table 1); they share points of similarities and distinction. Nearly all use a blended learning approach to deliver their curricula, combining online learning through webinars and MOOCS with on-site tutoring and mentoring. As recognized institutions, or by partnering with such universities, these programs are able to offer accredited certificates, diplomas and degrees. Differences include study subjects, location, enrolment and partners. There are also significant differences in funding and curriculum configuration. Whereas Kiron plans to start with two years of online MOOCs followed by two years at a partner university, BHER begins with a preparation course and builds incrementally to a certificate, and students may then continue their studies for a diploma and then a bachelor degree.



Table1. Main Providers of Online Higher Education for Refugees

Initiative Launched  / Funding Locations Curriculum/ Diploma Implemen- tation and University Partners Enrolled
Jesuit Commons-Higher Education at the Margins  


Private Donor & Jesuit Refugee Service Funds







The Diploma of Liberal Studies (45 credits)

Community Service Learning Tracks (CSLTs)


Jesuit colleges and univer- sities  worldwide

Regis  University in Denver, Colorado (accredits diploma)



1,900 since 2010

InZone 2010

Privately funded (Foundation North & others)

Dadaab, Kakuma and Nairobi, Kenya Certificate in Community Interpreting  (Dadaab)

Post-graduate continuing education degree in Humanitar- ian Interpreting – fully online (Kakuma)

Kenyatta University, University of  Geneva, UNIGE/InZone  314
Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER) 2013

Public (CIDA) and private funding

Dadaab, Kenya Teacher training certificates and diplomas; Stackable  and portable earned credits can  go towards full BA degree program in a variety of subjects Windle Trust Kenya, UNHCR,  WUSC, (University Partners), Kenyatta University Moi  University,  UBC,  York University 290
Kepler Kiziba 2015

(Ikea Foundation)

Kiziba, Rwanda US degree in Business Communi-cations or Health Management Government of Rwanda (MIDIMAR), ADRA, UNHCR,  Southern New Hampshire University 25 / year
Kiron 2015

(Crowd Sourcing)


(Based in Berlin, Germany)

varies MOOC platforms coursera, edX, iversity and openHPI

18universities across Europe.

1250 1st year MOOC

online refugesThe challenges

Refugees face many obstacles in accessing traditional higher education, such as lack of documentation providing recognition of prior learning, and not being able to afford tuition fees or learning materials. Thus, these innovative initiatives offer refugees opportunities where few exist.

However, online education for refugees also poses a few conundrums. First, as with all ICT for education initiatives, the need for reliable infrastructure –electricity, sufficient computers, access to Internet – is a basic requirement and limits not only how extensively these programs can be scaled up, but also their accessibility to the isolated learners.

Second, online courses and MOOCs in and of themselves can also be problematic. Current studies report that MOOCs have high attrition rates, with only about 13% completion rates. However, InZone has been able to show that MOOCs coupled with on-site tutoring and learning communities improve learners’ motivation and contribute to successful course completion.

Some point to a spreading dissatisfaction among local adults, who may not have the means to access higher education. This problem appears to have been anticipated since BHER, JC-HEM and InZone leave open a number of spots on their courses for host community candidates.

To be sure, these programs are still in their infancy. Only JC-HEM has graduated a substantial number of graduates. Without empirical research studies, it is not yet possible to accurately evaluate the full benefits that on-line higher education affords to refugees.

Finally, it is plausible that degree earning refugees, who do not have the right to work, or can only be offered incentive pay, may feel even more frustrated.   While this is not a reason to limit the provision of such opportunities, it presents a policy gap that must be considered. Programme providers can work with host governments to improve refugees’ opportunities for work and higher pay – particularly for those with recognized degrees in labour shortage areas of the economy.

Rebuilding the Future

Higher education for refugees must be considered a priority and not a luxury, as it is sometimes framed. For the first time, and rightfully so, higher education is part of UNHCR’s 2012-2016 Education Strategy.

Recognition of refugees’ existing credentials is an essential part of this conversation. Although more work is needed, targeted guidelines by the EU and the obligation of establishing procedures to assess refugees’ and Internally Displaced Persons’ (IDPs) qualifications in the 2014 Revised Convention on the Recognition of Studies, Certificates, Diplomas, Degrees and Other Academic Qualifications in Higher Education in African States, shows promise.

Engaging refugees in higher education provides a pathway to self-reliance and peace building. Ultimately it gives hope. When one has lost everything, education is a solid foundation on which to rebuild one’s future. When education is offered online or in blended form, it is resting on uncharted and unsteady ground. Yet, with 15 million refugees, protracted exile averaging 25 years, and the majority of refugees hosted by developing countries, new and creative ways of providing education are essential. There are many issues to work out in providing online higher education for refugees, starting with how to scale up efforts in a responsible and pedagogically sound manner. But, like all innovation, there is also great potential.



  1. The blog does not discuss the contents of the courses. What are they? who wrote them and on what basis, with which populations were they piloted? How do the organizers know how much learners will remember in, say, a year and will implement in a class?
    Then there is a big question about the “memorability” of online material. Various studies show that we remember less from e-books and screens, for reasons that at this moment are unclear.

    Donors typically leap over these details, assume that they are somehow fulfilled, and go on to the big policy picture. But without the pixels, the big picture becomes virtual reality.
    UNESCO can add a great deal of value by focusing on the above trivial details. They determine whether learners will become the teachers countries would like to have.

  2. An enlightening post. I had no idea there were already online programs in place for refugees. Even if these are in their infancy and present new challenges, it is a step in the right direction.

  3. Very nice article about a very important topic. Especially for Europe this will become a pressing problem. Are there surveys about how many refugees seek higher education, and how does this depend on the region where the refugees come from ? And what is the difference between higher online education for refugees and higher online education in general ?

  4. Great overview of a critical topic. Thanks, Martha. Given the number of refugees globally – not only those displaced from Syria – seeking access to higher education, online education is such an important endeavor. I appreciate you raising the issues of credentialing – refugees already face so many barriers to learning, working, contributing to society that they MUST have credentials in order to make use of their higher education.

  5. Facebook used online education as an example of why Internet access for all is a good thing. Sheryl Sandberg shared this example at Davos.
    Thinking about the merits of online/virtual education as a whole…. I’m convinced that my higher education could not have been transmitted in online format at the same quality.
    Indeed, I think we shouldn’t use online as a full replacement to the “real thing” and my concern is that countries will rely on online education instead of putting real infrastructure into place for in-person education. This infrastructure shouldn’t be neglected in the place of online – there is much value in having a coffee with your fellow students after a lecture to discuss certain points.
    Integration of social technologies and VOIP can of course help bridge the gap between online and “in person”.
    Make higher education available? Absolutely!
    In 100% online format? Only when necessary, such as is the case in many countries today unfortunately – and yes, if this is a way we can help refugees integrate into our society more smoothly.

  6. Thanks for this very interesting post Martha! I look forward to reading more about how these projects are implemented in the future.

  7. This is a very topical and interesting post given the magnitude of refugees and people on the move in today’s times. Like the other responses above, I agree that credentialing is absolutely essential and that online education cannot and should not replace the social experiences of attending a physical institution, I do wonder how organizations and global policy can balance these needs especially when host country governments may have restrictive policies about what kinds of online education they will recognize officially. For instance, some countries hosting Syrian refugees in the region do not recognize online higher education especially if the online components require students learning more than 50% of the course requirements online. This creates a dissonance between the needs of students and communities, what is available globally, outside an existing system, and what they can finally avail within an existing system given host country policies.

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