Skip to main content


Log in

Higher education for refugees: Lessons from a 4-year pilot project

  • Research Note
  • Published:
International Review of Education Aims and scope Submit manuscript


Refugees experience limited access to adequate education at all levels, but opportunities for higher education are especially lacking. Yet, evidence suggests that education plays an important protective role in helping refugee individuals and communities cope with their daily existence during protracted waiting periods, and the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) recently recognised tertiary education as a basic human right. The purpose of this paper is to present findings from the evaluation of a pilot programme, Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins (JC:HEM), which initially provided higher education to refugees in Kakuma Camp, Kenya and Dzaleka Camp, Malawi; and to urban refugees in Amman, Jordan. The authors of this note review the progress made towards the pilot objectives, as well as student feedback on the benefits and challenges of higher education for refugees and others living at the margins. The refugees interviewed in this study expressed feelings of empowerment, related to their expanded worldview as well as to a specific set of skills obtained through their participation in the programme. Interviewees also noted a number of limitations specific to the context of their living conditions. Particularly in refugee camps, students expressed concerns about what would happen after their having completed their course. The general outcome of the pilot phase, which ended in 2014, was that the programme addresses a critical need and that it should be continued, albeit with key modifications in its design and delivery. Key areas for future growth of the programme include curriculum transformation, integrated service delivery and university engagement.


Enseignement supérieur pour les réfugiés : conclusions d’un projet pilote de quatre ans – Les réfugiés ont à tous les niveaux un accès limité à un enseignement approprié, mais tout particulièrement à l’enseignement supérieur. Les résultats scientifiques suggèrent pourtant que l’éducation joue un important rôle de protection en aidant les individus et groupes réfugiés à gérer leur quotidien pendant des périodes d’attente prolongée. En outre, le Haut Commissariat des Nations Unies pour les réfugiés (UNHCR) a récemment déclaré l’enseignement supérieur droit fondamental. Cet article a pour but de présenter les résultats de l’évaluation d’un programme pilote, Jesuit Commons : enseignement supérieur en marge (JC:HEM), qui à ses débuts a dispensé des cours universitaires aux réfugiés des camps de Kakuma au Kenya et de Dzaleka au Malawi ainsi qu’aux réfugiés urbains d’Amman en Jordanie. Les auteurs examinent les progrès réalisés pour atteindre les objectifs du projet pilote ainsi que les retours d’information des apprenants sur les avantages et les défis d’un enseignement supérieur pour réfugiés et autres personnes marginalisées. Les réfugiés interrogés dans le cadre de l’étude expriment un sentiment d’autonomisation dû à leur vision élargie du monde ainsi qu’à un ensemble spécifique de compétences acquises grâce à leur participation au programme. Ils mentionnent d’autre part de nombreuses limites spécifiques au contexte de leurs conditions de vie. Dans les camps de réfugiés en particulier, les étudiants se déclarent soucieux de la période après l’achèvement de leur cours. Cette phase pilote terminée en 2014 tire la conclusion principale que le programme répond à un besoin critique et qu’il doit être poursuivi, néanmoins avec d’importantes modifications dans la conception et l’application du programme. Les principaux domaines pour une extension future en sont une transformation curriculaire, une prestation de services intégrés et un engagement universitaire.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.


  1. According to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), the average length of refugee displacement is approximately 17 years. See [accessed 21 April 2015].

  2. In terms of content, the first course in the Diploma in Liberal Studies is the “Bridge to Learning“course for all students, followed by foundational courses in writing, communications, science, maths, arts, religion, literature, political theory and philosophy. In the last year of the programme, students specialise in either Business or Education, choosing a concentration consisting of five courses. In 2015, a concentration in Social Work will be added. CSLT course offers included child protection, community development, community health, primary teacher training, and a number of English and applied English courses. For more details see JC:HEM (2014).

  3. Kakuma was estimated to hold about 151,114 refugees in April 2014 (UNHCR 2014a). The estimated figure for Dzaleka in January 2014 was almost 17,000 (UNHCR 2014b).

  4. While many refugees are stuck in situations/host countries where they are not allowed to work, in some settings some forms of work are possible. In Kakuma, for example, refugees can be employed as incentive workers for non-governmental organisations, while in Dzaleka, refugees are prohibited from working.

  5. The full evaluation report can be requested from the corresponding author.

  6. This term derives from Ignatius of Loyola (c. 1491–1556), who founded the Society of Jesus (Jesuits).


  • Caruana, V. (2014). Using the Ignatian pedagogical paradigm to frame the reflective practice of special education teacher candidates. Jesuit Higher Education, 3(1), 19–28.

    Google Scholar 

  • Dankova, P., & Giner, C. (2011). Technology in aid of learning for isolated refugees. Forced Migration Review, 38, 11–12.

    Google Scholar 

  • Dryden-Peterson, S., & Giles, W. (2010). Introduction: Higher education for refugees. Refuge, 27(2), 3–9.

    Google Scholar 

  • El Jack, A. (2010). “Education is my mother and father”: The “invisible” women of Sudan. Refuge, 27(2), 19–31.

    Google Scholar 

  • JC:HEM (Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins). (2014). Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins. About us. Accessed April 13, 2015, from

  • Jesuit Institute (2013). Ignatian Pedagogy: A practical approach. Accessed 13 April 2015, from

  • Kanan, H. M. (2005). Assessing the roles and training needs of educational superintendents in Palestine. Journal of Educational Administration, 43(2), 154–169.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kim, J. Y., Farmer, P., & Porter, M. (2013). Redefining global health-care delivery. Lancet, 382, 1060–1069.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kirk, J. (2010). Gender, forced migration and education: Identities and experiences of refugee women teachers. Gender and Education, 22(2), 161–176.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Strauss, A., & Corbin, J. (1998). Basics of qualitative research: Techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  • UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) (2012). Education strategy 20122016: Summary. Geneva: UNHCR, Division of international protection. Accessed 13 April 2015, from

  • UNHCR (2014a). Refugees in the Horn of Africa: Somali displacement crisis. Kakuma camp population 2014-04-30. Accessed 13 April 2015, from

  • UNHCR (2014b). UNHCR pilots new biometrics system in Malawi refugee camp: Making a difference. Accessed 13 April 2015, from

  • Watkins, P., Razee, H., & Richters, J. (2012). “I’m telling you… the language barrier is the most, the biggest challenge”: Barriers to education among Karen refugee women in Australia. Australian Journal of Education, 56(2), 126–141.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wright, L., & Plasterer, W. (2010). Beyond basic education: Exploring opportunities for higher learning in Kenyan refugee camps. Refuge, 27(2), 42–57.

    Google Scholar 

  • Zeus, B. (2011). Exploring barriers to higher education in protracted refugee situations: The case of Burmese refugees in Thailand. Journal of Refugee Studies, 24(2), 256–276.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Thomas M. Crea.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Crea, T.M., McFarland, M. Higher education for refugees: Lessons from a 4-year pilot project. Int Rev Educ 61, 235–245 (2015).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: