Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER) is the culmination of seven years of research, discussions and debate.BHER is built on principles of access to education for all as a global humanitarian right. The project began with “The Globalization of Protracted Refugee Situations” (GPRS) initiative, led by Professors Wenona Giles and Jennifer Hyndman at York University, which sought to explore the definition of long-term refugee situations and their relationship to the provision of development aid.[1] One of the outcomes of the GPRS project was a Centre for Refugee Studies (CRS) sponsored workshop on tertiary education for refugees, organized at York University, Toronto, in April 2010 (Toronto 2010 Workshop Report and blog site).[2] At this time,more than 30 researchers, teachers, policy-makers and activists from around the world discussed and strategized about higher education for refugees in a variety of international contexts.

The goal of this initial workshop was to promote the exchange of ideas and initiate discussion about tertiary education for forced migrants. It was agreed upon that, in many cases, people experiencing forced migration are unable to complete or, in some instances, begin their education, due to a lack of opportunities for them in countries of refuge. In particular, the objectives of the first Borderless Higher Education for Refugees workshop were as follows: to understand the impact of the absence of tertiary education on long-term refugees; to consider possibilities/opportunities for the future provision of tertiary education to refugees; and, to identify the potential role of Canadian and other international institutions in the provision of tertiary education for refugees (distance or other delivery methods).[3] A special emphasis was placed on strategies for the gender equitable provision of education to girls and women.

Parallel to these developments, Executive Director of Windle Trust Kenya (WRK), Marangu Njogu, met with faculty at YU to discuss the possibility of onsite/distance university learning and teaching models for young refugees and incentive teachers in Dadaab. WTK is an organization that facilitates education in the camps and mediates the award of scholarships for refugees, maintaining a focus on gender equity. Although the camps host very little by way of university education, Faculty members at York University were optimistic about the future of a potential initiative. They believed that the strength of a consortium of universities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Kenya and Canada, and the variety of distance education formats that are currently available worldwide, would make the delivery of higher education in the camps possible. A site just outside the camps in the local town could host a university campus, providing a significant boost to the opportunities for education in Dadaab, in the camps, and in the surrounding region for refugees and local community members through onsite and online learning. The long-term goal of such programs would be to improve the quality of teaching both in and around the camps, offering teacher training to current refugees working as teachers without training, paid a stipend or “incentive” wage by the governing UNHCR agency. Teachers would subsequently be offered the possibility to pursue additional higher education. To assess the feasibility of the delivery of portable university education to long-term refugees in the Dadaab camps, Professor Giles visited Kenya in November 2010. Discussions with various partners aimed to test the idea and procure support. Importantly, the Kenyan Government (the MP of the Dadaab region and the Ministry of Education) confirmed their commitment and enthusiasm for the project (see FSR 2012). As a result, the Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER) consortium was formed (for information of the BHER partners, please consult BHER | Partner Organizations).

From June 30 to July 2nd2011, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, a second workshop was held in Kampala, Uganda.[4] The Kampala meeting focused specifically on developing a partnership and a research plan that would result in improved access to higher education for refugees in the Dadaab, Kenya camps, and citizens of the host country living in the region. Bringing together 23 interdisciplinary researchers, academics, graduate students, and practitioners, it was affirmed that education is not only a right but that it supports the production of the higher-order capacity necessary for promoting peace, security and development in sites of historical and current geo-political and cultural conflict.

During this workshop it was determined that the overall goal of the BHER project is to design on-line/on-site higher education courses and degree programs for refugees in the Dadaab refugee camps, as well as for Kenyan students in the surrounding area.

With generous support from the MasterCard Foundation, the project team began to prepare a research plan for a feasibility study to be conducted in Dadaab. Prior to the December 2nd -4th, 2011meeting in Nairobi, Dadaab community researchers, hired by the BHER project, were trained to conduct interviews and focus group discussions in the camps. Their task was to inquire about the nature of the educational needs of refugees and local community members. By seeking community input and using a participatory-action approach to research and project design, BHER has aimed to avoid the often-lopsided power relationships that envelop research dynamics involving international partnerships. This means the local community participates in programme design and implementation, thus directly contributing to and benefiting from the research and project. During this exploratory phase, local community members were hired as research assistants to conduct interviews within the camps. The research generated within the community, coupled with the extensive prior research by BHER team members, led to the preparation and assessment of the draft Feasibility Study Report (FSR)[5].

In May 2012, a fourth workshop was held for two days in Toronto, ON. The Toronto Workshop was convened to validate the draft FSR and proposed development of programs across all partners of the BHER project. As a group, the 25‐30 people in attendance each day carefully worked through the design, implementation and challenges of each of the four phases of the BHER project (Toronto Workshop 2012 | Report). The four phases are detailed in the Feasibility Study Report.

In February 2013, the BHER project was awarded a $4.5 million Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) grant with additional matching funds ($1.5 million) from partnering Canadian organizations. The CIDA funds will help BHER to build infrastructure for this program in Dadaab, to develop the certificate, diploma and degree programs to be offered, to pay for university Faculty to teach their courses both online and onsite and thereby, overall, improve opportunities for higher education in the Dadaab camps and surrounding region. This project will serve as a portable model for the provision of higher education to marginalized communities worldwide (BHER In the News).

[1] GPRS was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

Key findings of that research included: i) long-term refugees survive with humanitarian relief despite the ways that they have been externalized or isolated from the rest of the world; ii) long-term refugee situations vary from country to country, and region to region – in camps, urban/ suburban or exurban sites. No matter the site, most host countries are barely able to support the refugees they host. And for the most part, they do not want refugees to stay and settle. Thus citizenship and its benefits, such as equitable access to the labour force, education, health, housing and other social services are unavailable to all but a few long-term refugees who are located in the global south; iii) keeping refugees out of view and sequestered in camps or in stateless and extremely vulnerable situations in the global south contributes to silencing them (Feasibility Study Report 2012:14).

[2] The workshop was funded principally by the SSHRC, the International Development Research Centre of Canada (IDRC) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and was generously supported by the Refugee Research Network (RRN), CRS and York University.

[3] This initiative is a response to York University’s goal to significantly develop: the intercultural expertise and competence of global dialogues among its students; and the technical expertise of its faculty and students in virtual intercultural communications.
York’s recent Provostial White Paper calls for “significantly widen[ing] access to university education, especially for non-traditional or external students…from anywhere in the world through virtualization and remote e-learning technologies”.

[4] In the spring of 2011, leading up to the Kampala workshop, the initiative was awarded a Partnership Development Grant from SSHRCC and a MasterCard Foundation (MCF) grant.

[5] The FSR was supported by the MasterCard Foundation grant