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Refugee Access to Higher Education: Researchers' Perspective Working Group


Info about event


Friday 12 February 2021,  at 13:00 - 14:00


Online (Zoom)

The aim of this webinar series is to open a space for students, practioners and researchers to engage together in issues related to the inclusion of students with a refugee background into higher education (HE) structures. What brings the participants together is their wish to understand further the dynamics at play, not only the obstacles but also the opportunities in widening access, from multiple perspectives. We believe a diversity of voices should be heard to support the idea that higher education can provide a range of answers and opportunities for people undergoing forced migration in all their diversity; and to support further action to improve access to HE. And we decided that the first voices that should be heard is that of the students themselves. 

In this 4th session of our webinar series, shared research on issues to do with the inclusion of refugees in higher education. Aura Lounasmaa spoke on the entanglements of immigration policies and university neoliberalisation and how these impact on access to higher education for marginalised groups. Leon Cremonini reflected on blended learning programs deployed in Za’atari Camp in Jordan as part of the Jamiya project and their meaning in terms of rights and citizenship for refugee learners. 


The link to the recorded webinar is here: 

Passcode: Abe+82YD 


Dr Aura Lounasmaa is a senior lecturer in politics and the director of University of East London's OLIve course, which prepares forced migrant students for university entry. She previously worked as part of a team teaching the award-winning Life Stories course at the Calais Jungle.  

Aura Lounasmaa highlighted how immigration policies that create a hostile environment for migrants in the UK combine with market-driven higher education systems to negatively impact on access to university for migrants, including refugees and asylum seekers. When refugees and asylum seekers do enter into higher education, there is a lack of attention to the specific needs of displaced students; in particular, universities are not well placed to deal with issues of trauma as they arise. Aura Lounasmaa insisted that the traumatic aspects of refugee experiences are not solely located in the past: rather people who experienced forced displacement may have faced traumatic situation prior to leaving but also throughout their journeys. In fact, trauma is yet further exacerbated by asylum systems based on suspicion and hostility towards applicants, and unfortunately UK universities have frequently been complicit in reproducing a wider environment leading to retraumatisation. One way of addressing these issues, according to Aura Lounasmaa, is to consider and support moves to decolonise the curriculum so as to provide adequate space for a range of experiences and perspectives: this involves expanding what we teach and also reconsidering how resources are used and distributed in higher education. This centres on the possibility of ‘amplifying voices’, so as to have refugee voices resound on curricula and on the ways we teach and organise the university. 


Leon Cremonini is a senior policy advisor at the University of Twente’s Strategy and Policy Unit. He has been the Managing Director of the Ethiopian Institute for Higher Education (EIHE) at Addis Ababa University (Ethiopia), and a researcher at the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies (CHEPS), University of Twente, the Netherlands, between 2006 and 2018. Leon worked in Europe, the United States and Africa, focusing on higher education policy reform in several countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Main areas of interest include excellence policies, internationalization, quality assessment, university and programme rankings, and equity and access to higher education, particularly for historically disadvantaged populations and refugees. He contributed to the 2019 UNESCO volume on student affairs in higher education with an introduction on roles that student affairs play in refugee education. He has worked as a consultant to the European Union’s delegation to Syria on higher education in emergencies project, and as a consultant for the development of the national strategy for higher education in Ethiopia. 

Leon Cremonini analysed a pilot project undertaken at Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, which sought to develop blended learning programs for displaced learners. The talk focused in particular on the gap that exists between education possibilities and education aspirations amongst refugees. Refugees often face a depreciation of their social and related capital: in new environments, their previous learning becomes devalued. Scholarship programs and opportunities for refugees also tend to favour the exceptional ‘high achievers’ - like any group of people the number of academically exceptional refugees is low. This focus on exceptionality points to the ways in which those who are marked as ‘different’ have to struggle harder than those who are part of the ‘norm’ when seeking access to higher education. Leon Cremonini argued that in this way, higher education is a space for controlling a shared society, determining what sorts of voices are able to be part of a public domain. Refugee voices can be problematic and need to be controlled in the public domain and, if exclusionary, higher education can serve this aim of controlling voice and visibility. Leon Cremonini asks, what types of modes of inclusive higher education can address this issue and allow for a wider access to higher education, and to public domain visibility, for refugees?