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Promoting access to quality, safe, and relevant education for all persons affected by crisis

Tertiary Education in Emergencies

Tertiary education is an essential part of the education continuum. Graduates of tertiary education programmes have the best chances of self-reliance and resilience, and act as leaders and role models in their communities. Access to tertiary education serves as a strong incentive for students to continue and complete their education at the primary and secondary levels.

Tertiary education programmes are typically designed to provide students with academic and/or professional knowledge, skills and competencies. These programmes are based on theory, research and practical components and often include a specific focus on civic engagement and/or community development

It is believed that tertiary education can make a substantive and lasting contribution to the lives and livelihoods of those who are forcibly displaced. It has shown to play a role in protecting refugee youth and young adults and other people affected by emergencies. It can prepare them and their communities for potentially attaining sustainable solutions in a variety of situations of forced displacement. It also fosters the development of critical thinking, knowledge production, and information literacy skills that contribute to post-conflict reconstruction, promote social, economic, and gender equality and empower refugee communities. Tertiary education has the potential to nurture a generation of future change-makers who can take the lead in identifying and accessing solutions for refugees.


Defining Tertiary Education

According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, ‘tertiary education builds on secondary education, providing learning activities in specialised fields of education. It aims at learning at a high level of complexity and specialisation. Tertiary education includes what is commonly understood as academic education, but is broader than that because it also includes advanced vocational or professional education’.

Tertiary education systems include institutions such as universities, colleges, polytechnics, and vocational training institutions, either public or private, offering qualifications at different levels and of differing length through formal education programs either on-site, at distance or in a blended format.

For a more technical distinction, the International Standard Classification for Education (ISCDE) differentiates levels of tertiary education according to degrees of complexity of the content that is covered. This classification is authoritative and is used globally for education statistics by UNESCO, World Bank, OECD, Eurostat, etc. Tertiary education covers anything beyond secondary (in the US, the term post-secondary is used instead of tertiary). The most relevant classifications of tertiary education for the content on this page include:  

  • ISCED 5 = Short-cycle tertiary education
  • ISCED 6 = Bachelors degree or equivalent tertiary education level
  • ISCED 7 = Masters degree or equivalent tertiary education level
  • ISCED 8 = Doctoral degree or equivalent tertiary education level


Policy Landscape

International human rights law guarantees the right to education. The Universal Declaration on Human Rights, adopted in 1948, proclaims in its article 26: "everyone has the right to education". And this right extends beyond the secondary level: the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights of 1996, Article 13, states that “Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education.” In Europe, Article 2 of the First Protocol to the European convention to Human Rights adopted in 1950, obliges all signatory parties to guarantee the right to education.

Recent changes in the global policy environment for tertiary education in emergencies has seen important advances. In 2015, states committed to the Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4), aiming to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and to promote lifelong learning opportunities for all, explicitly including refugees and internally displaced populations (IDPs). In 2016, another milestone was set through the adoption of the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants and its annex, the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) at the United Nations General Assembly, which emphasizes the importance of comprehensive approaches and durable solutions to large-scale and protracted refugee situations and relates to tertiary education as a “powerful driver for change” highlighting scholarships as a means to expand education opportunities for refugees.

Globally, less than 1% of eligible refugees enroll in tertiary education, compared to 36% worldwide.

Key Messages

  • Tertiary education is a human right: Access to tertiary education “on the basis of merit” is a human right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Art. 26.2), and referred to in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Art. 13c). The 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) affirmed the right of all children, regardless of status, to free and compulsory primary education, to available and accessible secondary education, and to tertiary education on the basis of capacity (United Nations, 1989, Art. 28).
  • There is a large unmet demand for tertiary education among refugees: Refugees who have completed secondary school almost universally voice the desire to attend university. Opportunities for tertiary education for refugees, however, are severely limited and uneven across regions and settings of displacement, particularly for women. Difficulty accessing quality learning, education, and skill-building opportunities was one of ten issues highlighted by refugee youth during the 2016 Global Refugee Youth Consultations. Increases in secondary education enrolments raise the demand for tertiary education opportunities among refugee youth.
  • Tertiary education protects and contributes to durable solutions: Tertiary education can foster the development of critical thinking, knowledge production, and information literacy skills that contribute to post-conflict reconstruction, promote social, economic, and gender equality and empower refugee communities.
  • Tertiary education fosters resilience, recovery, and peace: “In general, primary education is formative while tertiary education has the possibility to be transformative.” (Milton & Barakat 2016, 414) Tertiary education fosters skill development that contributes to post-conflict reconstruction, promotes social, economic development and empowers refugee communities.
  • Tertiary education strengthens the education continuum: Access to tertiary education serves as a strong incentive for students to continue and complete their studies at the primary and secondary levels. Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4) explicitly promotes lifelong learning opportunities for all.


Key Activities

Advocacy & Partnerships

Despite some achievements, the discourse on EiE among humanitarian, development, and government actors still focuses predominantly on access to primary and lower secondary education. Many EiE stakeholders are working to strengthen the inclusion of lifelong learning and tertiary education in discussions, policy, and programming to create the preconditions and commitment necessary to broaden quality tertiary education opportunities for people affected by emergencies.

In 2017, UNESCO published a policy paper on “Six ways to ensure higher education leaves no one behind”. UNHCR gives guidance to scholarship providers through its “Higher Education Considerations for Refugees in Countries Affected by the Syria and Iraq Crises”.

In line with the New York Declaration and the CRRF, the United Nations advocate for full inclusion of refugee children and youth in national education systems. Inclusion is a far more durable, sustainable and reliable solution to the issue of education in the context of displacement. Universities must open their gates to refugee students, accept them on the same conditions as nationals, taking their special needs into consideration and providing alternative ways to recognition of prior learning.


Scholarship Programmes

Lack of financial resources is often the main obstacle for vulnerable students to access tertiary education. Many universities treat refugees as foreign students and charge much higher fees. In response, many programs focus on the provision of scholarships and a large number of refugee hosting countries, notably Canada, the UK, Australia, Germany, France and others, have set up online gateways that provide refugees and asylum seekers with the necessary information to access and finance higher education opportunities.

Scholarships ensure protected and decent living conditions for sponsored students, allowing them to focus on their studies, build networks, and gain skills necessary to later succeed in the labor market. Depending on the program, scholarships cover a wide range of costs, from tuition fees and study materials, to food, transport, and accommodation.

Some of the large scholarship providers include DAAD (HOPES), EduSyria, SPARK, WUSC and UNHCR. The Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative (DAFI)  is a recognized model for flexible, targeted support of young refugees. It combines protection, solutions and human development approaches. Since 1992, it has supported more than 14,000 refugees to study in their host countries. In light of the high numbers of refugees worldwide, the DAFI program continues to play a key role in minimizing the interruption of individual education careers, offering real perspectives to young refugees and ensuring that their rights and protection needs are fully respected.

In 2017, the Institute of International Education (IIE) and the Catalyst Foundation for Universal Education developed the Platform for Education in Emergencies Response (PEER), an online clearinghouse enabling displaced and refugee students to connect with educational opportunities so they may continue formal and informal higher education. While the initial focus of PEER has been on the Syrian refugee crisis, the platform aims to become a global resource for all refugee and displaced students, connecting them to scholarships, language and online learning, and other educational resources.


Connected Learning Programmes

Coordinated by the University of Geneva (InZone) and UNHCR, the Connected Learning in Crisis Consortium (CLCC) was founded in 2016. The CLCC aims to promote, coordinate, and support the provision of quality tertiary education in contexts of conflict, crisis and displacement through connected learning.

Connected learning is an innovative pedagogical approach that leverages information technology to combine face-to-face and online learning, otherwise known as blended learning. It enables students living in remote and mostly under-resourced areas to connect with higher education opportunities and to exchange knowledge globally. Since 2010, more than 6,500 refugee learners in 11 countries have participated in connected learning programmes of the consortium members.


Key Resources