UNESCO – Working for Refugees’ Access to Higher Education

Establishing common principles and procedures for the recognition of refugees’ qualifications.

Location: Global


Today, only 1 per cent of eligible refugees have access to higher education, compared to 36 per cent of global youth (UNHCR). Access to higher education is the possibility for refugees to nurture their talent, to gain the skills to rebuild their societies from conflict, and to foster peace and reconciliation. According UNESCO’s 2017 working paper Protecting the right to education for refugees, “…access to higher education contributes to solutions and post-conflict reconstruction, promotes social, economic and gender equality, and empowers refugee communities. Moreover, ensuring access to higher education for refugees also provides a strong incentive for students to continue and complete their studies at the primary and secondary levels”.

Refugees face huge obstacles in pursuing their studies, from language and cost to the recognition of prior qualifications. As the only UN agency with a mandate in higher education, UNESCO has for a long time been working to remedy some of the difficulties refugees face when attempting to pursue higher education or to find work.

The UNESCO Regional Recognition Conventions for Europe, Africa and Asia-Pacific, respectively, commit states to establish special procedures to assess and recognize refugees’ qualifications, taking into account the specific difficulties faced by refugees. Such provisions are also included in the drafts for the new Arab States and Latin American and the Caribbean regional conventions, both foreseen to be adopted in 2019.

For many refugees fleeing from war or disasters, providing the necessary documentation to have prior qualifications recognized by a foreign university can be difficult, if not impossible. The recommendation therefore establishes common principles and procedures for the recognition of refugees’ qualifications, even in cases when documentation cannot be provided. A number of European countries in partnership with the Council of Europe recently established the European Qualifications Passport for Refugees. Based on a thorough methodology including interviews, refugees unable to document their qualifications are issued a statement attesting their qualifications, valid in all the partnering countries.

In 2019, UNESCO will increase its efforts to improve refugees’ access to higher education by adopting a Global Convention on the Recognition of Higher Education Qualifications, aiming to facilitate inter-regional academic mobility and to establish common recognition practices worldwide. Like with the regional conventions, the future Global Convention will include provisions on the recognition of refugees’ qualifications, allowing refugees to access higher education also when being forced to leave their home country for another region. The Global Convention will also constitute a framework for Member States to increase collaboration on recognition of refugees’ qualifications and access to higher education, drawing on experiences from the regional conventions.