OuiShare Workshop: Higher Education for Syrian Refugees — blue-print uni?

In May, along with the great people at SenseCube, I held a small workshop at the OuiShare Fest to introduce and brainstorm the use of peer technology in helping solve the challenges of the humanitarian sector. We focussed on access to higher education for Syrian refugees.

Although there is no comprehensive assessment of displaced Syrians missing out on higher education, a conservative estimate would be approximately 100,000 students are currently missing out on university; or an equivalent to 10 Oxford Universities worth of students.

I’m pleased to say that, despite the extreme time limits (fitting a 2 day workshop into 45 mins is no easy task!), the participants had great ideas and were fantastically creative!

Four challenges

We split up around four challenge areas: language barriers; funding; social tensions; lack of mobility.

Lots of solutions on language and social tensions focussed on engaging through known mediums and activities: story telling, singing, cross-cultural similarities; all of which recognised the need to find solutions in what is familiar and relevant to the refugee population.

Providing the tools to form connections between refugees isolated in camps was seen as key to easing social tensions, as well as solving the issue of funding — or lack thereof. Self-organisation and connection to local communities through peer networks to diffuse misunderstanding stood out, along with crowd-funding the costs of further education. Interestingly, this latter idea addressed the need for new funding modalities mentioned in the previous blog on disrupting the humanitarian sector.

Involving the private sector for sponsorships was another solution for funding. This also has broader implications for one of the main durable solutions for refugees: resettlement. How might involving the private sector make enable more demand-led resettlement instead of supply-led (often resisted by receiving countries)?*. Furthermore, it recognises that refugees have useful skills that they can be empowered to put into use and are not just passive recipients of aid.

Participants also explored how networks of cascading education using software such as Skype could allow agencies to scale offerings and help broaden the offer of education across multiple locations — perhaps even connect to students’ old professors elsewhere in the world!

Empower refugees to self-organise

One thing that struck me through the workshop was the potential of the systems, technologies and concepts that we’d been discussing to empower self-organisation and connection. Rather than trying to fit refugees into a local system or design a new system inspired from a world outside, why not allow the refugees space to create their own solutions?

Since the workshops, I’ve had several conversations with Syrians in Azraq refugee camp about the lack of access to university. It is quite clear that they do not see their educational aspirations being met inside a camp with current infrastructure or even within Jordan. Yet, they clearly articulate what sort of education they want and why.

A good synthesis of the workshop could be a ‘blue-print university’. What if there was a university ‘in a box’ that could be used by refugees to reconnect their old academic network — or start new ones — and continue studying?

One issue would certainly be sustainable funding: how to create blue-prints that can be self funding. Crowdfunding, mentioned above, could be one area. Facilitating and conducting research could be another, as refugee groups tend to be heavily researched by international institutions.

I’ll be exploring the blue-print uni idea over the next few months, hopefully putting together enough of a concrete plan to put it into action.

In the meantime, huge thanks to all those that participated. Having approx 40 people listen and contribute to the ideas I’d put across during the workshop was special. And, of course, big thanks to the guys at SenseCube for helping out!

* There would be obvious issues here with inequity in access between those with different skills, but the thought experiment is one worth pursuing.