Diaspora Higher Ed


Diaspora Higher Education: What’s Next for Displaced Learners?

Originally published as an edited long read on the Journal of Interrupted Studies-Oxford Blog.

Peggy Lynn MacIsaac looks at the opportunities available to displaced learners seeking higher education, and at new long-distance initiatives providing for a growing diaspora of resettled students.

Sri Lankan students, © 2015 Jesuit Worldwide Learning.

Diaspora, n.:  any group of people who have spread or become dispersed beyond their traditional homeland or point of origin.Oxford English Dictionary

I live in a small northern town in Canada. The sign beside the highway as it dips toward the river displays a population of 2990. When I tell people that I study refugee distance learners, there are two common responses: one encouraging, and one not. Some people tell me amazing personal stories of how their friends or family members were refugees who resettled in Canada. Others, bewildered, attempt to explain why this population does not need tertiary education. My response to the naysayers is to draw examples from refugee history over the last seven decades, in an attempt to connect world politics to personal human experience. My most successful responses have become the basis for my local newspaper column, which includes among other vignettes Albert Einstein’s experience as a refugee to the US and Canada’s history of service to refugees, with a view to the fact that Canada’s population is half that of the estimated number of forcibly displaced people globally.

Kakuma graduation, © 2015 Jesuit Worldwide Learning.

Higher education in emergencies serves learners in fragile contexts who are forcibly displaced, such as refugees, internally displaced persons, or asylum-seekers (RIDPAs). RIDPAs reside in a context of transition, without knowing whether they will return to their home of origin, resettle in a third location, or make their temporary location into their permanent home. Nor do they know if their transitional state will be short-term or protracted. In 2013, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that a protracted displacement has “continued into the second and third decades for some Somalis, Rwandans, Burundians, Liberians, Eritreans and Congolese exiles.” RIDPAs occupy an ever-changing liminality of uncertain time and space often defined by what it is not, rather than what it is. Diaspora higher education, which I will use here, is a fitting designation for the fostering of meaningful tertiary learning in these liminal conditions.

At the end of 2014, an estimated 30 million people between the ages of 18 and 59 were forcibly displaced worldwide. From this population, there may be hundreds of thousands of displaced adults who have the capacity and desire to study at the tertiary level.  Dryden-Peterson confirms both the significant demand and severely limited opportunities for diaspora higher education. The UNHCR recognises that the demand for tertiary education in emergencies is outpacing the capacity to create brick-and-mortar institutions, and encourages the expansion of “tertiary level open and distance learning for refugees”. Recently, UNHCR Innovation, which describes itself as amplifying, connecting, and exploring opportunities for innovation within and outside the UNHCR, launched Connected Learning. This initiative uses current information communication technologies to address the needs of displaced learners through flexible connected education. Open and distance learning are viable options to provide internationally recognised, quality, scalable, and sustainable higher education to diaspora learners occupying liminal spaces.


Searching for the Right Words

As an academic librarian, I help people identify effective search strategies to find published works relevant to their individual research topics. I was surprised when my search for academic material on refugees and higher education returned so much irrelevant material. Searching in English, I found that most of the research investigated university students who had already resettled permanently in Canada, the US, the UK, or Australia. It became clear that the word refugee was being used to refer to individuals who might more correctly be identified as former refugees. Arguably, once a refugee has repatriated or resettled, then the term refugee no longer applies. However inaccurate, the designation ‘refugee’ lingers as a disservice to the individuals who are former refugees. In surveying the significantly smaller body of academic literature pertaining to diaspora higher education specifically, I found work on initiatives led by United Nations agencies, humanitarian organisations, international consortiums, and individual universities.


Many of the diaspora higher education initiatives I found make use of face-to-face, blended, or distance modes of learning, and support the capacity of the displaced learner to contribute to the rebuilding of their communities. International organisations have developed voluntary international standards for intervening in humanitarian crisis, which recognise the necessity of providing higher education to members of the diaspora. The most widely used of these is the Sphere Handbook: Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response. The Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE) has worked with the Sphere Project to develop a companion document titled INEE Minimum Standards for Education: Preparedness, Response, Recovery. The INEE standards guide the collaborative work of UNESCO and UNHCR to provide education in emergencies. Together UNESCO, UNHCR, and INEE advocate for the provision of quality learning opportunities in technical, vocational, and higher education through face-to-face, blended, and distance education.

Kakuma students, © 2015 Jesuit Worldwide Learning.

Partnerships between agencies help to streamline the logistical challenges of diaspora higher education, allowing each agency to focus on doing what it does best. Jesuit Worldwide Learning: Higher Education at the Margins (JWL) has developed ” a sustainable, scalable, transferable model to ensure those who live at the margins have access to higher education.” This has positioned JWL as an excellent collaborator for any post-secondary institution interested in providing online or blended education opportunities for learners in emergencies. JWL is an example of an organisation that provides a framework through which any partner institution can deliver its curriculum and programmes. Other notable organisations delivering on-the-ground higher education are Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER), Australian Catholic University’s Thai-Burma Programme (ACU), Kenyatta University’s Centre for Refugee Studies and Empowerment, and the Refugee Education Programmes for Kepler and Southern New Hampshire University. Post-secondary institutions’ international agreements on the transferability of credited coursework open up opportunities for displaced learners, who may not know which country will provide a durable solution and permanent home.


Importantly, the recent growth in the number of open educational resources (OER) allows individuals to access quality educational opportunities online for free. Hundreds of tertiary institutions are members of the Open Courseware Consortium, which provides free online multilingual academic courses. The Open Educational Resources University (OERu) is a partnership of several higher education institutions that have converted some of their academic courses into free online ones,with the option of assessment and credentialing at affordable prices. Since the list of OERu partner institutions spans five continents, a diaspora distance learner can choose a partner institution through which to apply for credentialing that works with the learner’s situation and location. One of the strengths in using open educational resources is the ability to factor in local contexts, thus demonstrating respect for the knowledge and assets the learner brings to the educational experience. Another strength is the use of the internet, open software, creative commons licensing, social media, and mobile applications to allow OER to be adapted to serve tens of students in a classroom, or thousands of students studying at a distance. The creation of appropriate curricula and the use of information and communications technologies can contribute to better diaspora higher education globally. This kind of innovation in higher education holds the hope for meeting the needs of adult learners in emergency contexts.



Working and studying at Athabasca University, Canada’s open university, means I am able to live in a northern prairie town and connect to learners around the world. I experience open and distance learning as it reduces barriers to higher education, and am excited to explore their possible applications to diaspora higher education.

There is hope for adult learners who are refugees, internally displaced persons, or asylum-seekers. Providing higher education in emergencies demands an understanding and respect of the learner’s fragile context in order to adequately adapt course design. These contexts include immediate challenges to learners’ mobility, health, and security and the infrastructure of their locations. They also include the learners’ level of access to social support and academic role models, as well as documentation of prior formal education. Meeting the demand for diaspora higher education clearly warrants a variety of innovative responses.