20 June is World Refugee Day. In their new book Refugees in Higher Education: Debate, Discourse and Practice, Jacqueline Stevenson and Sally Baker offer a comprehensive discussion of the policies and practices that seek to ensure refugee students access to higher education, focusing on the UK and Australia. This book challenges the context of global efforts to widen participation in higher education systems for students from refugee backgrounds and urges policymakers and institutions to offer more meaningful action, writes Khalaf Mohamed Abdellatif.

Refugees in Higher Education: Debate, Discourse and Practice. Jacqueline Stevenson and Sally Baker. Emerald Publishing. 2018.

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Emerald’s Great Debates in Education series aims to address some key challenging issues in higher education ‘to help us unpick and assess the state of higher education systems, policies, and social and economic impacts’ (iv). Accordingly, Refugees in Higher Education, authored by Jacqueline Stevenson and Sally Baker, provides a comprehensive discussion of the policies and practices that aim to ensure refugee students access to and participation in higher education. The authors’ experiences of working with refugees add merit to the book’s argument: Stevenson is a sociologist of education who has worked extensively with child and adult asylum seekers in the UK and established a refugee monitoring scheme at Sheffield Hallam University to help with access to and understanding of higher education and the labour market. A lecturer at the University of New South Wales, Baker has longstanding experience as an English-language teacher, working with refugee students through governmental programmes in the UK and Australia. Through this, she has witnessed anxieties surrounding language learning and the impact of displacement journeys on education. Drawing from discourses on forced migration and including some case studies, the book’s scholarship is therefore well-supported and aims to reflect the voices of refugee students.

Refugees in Higher Education includes nine chapters, focusing on the UK and Australian context. In the first chapter, Stevenson and Baker set out their framework. They discuss the right to education and its importance for refugees in the global context. Furthermore, they offer historical and geographical overviews of forced migration, highlighting the opportunities and constraints of participation in higher education on employment. Additionally, the authors underscore that ‘the driver […] in writing this book, however, comes from our frustration with those national policies and practices which continually position refugees and asylum seekers as the “other”’ (8). Hence, the debate on the othering of refugee students is a theme that runs throughout the book.

The book highlights the media and political discourses concerning refugees in higher education and discusses some cross-cutting issues, such as equity, access, inclusion, participation and diversity. It provides insights into the Australian media’s rhetoric of ‘keeping them out’ (26), in addition to highlighting the use of refugees for political ends. For example, the use of images of refugees queuing to cross the border in the UK’s Brexit campaign is discussed.

Image Credit: (Maria Teneva Unsplash CC0)

Nations that share borders with countries facing extreme conflicts receive huge numbers of refugees. For instance, Turkey hosts the largest numbers of refugees or asylum seekers worldwide, with over 3.6 million Syrian refugees. However, being affiliated with higher education institutions in the UK and Australia, Stevenson and Baker focus their study on these countries. At the end of 2017, Australia had 96,512 persons of concern as refugees or asylum seekers, while the UK had 162,299 persons. The authors underscore the particular advantages of choosing these two countries to highlight the situation of refugees and asylum seekers. Given the potential to be offered permanent protection visas, access to general education for children and to English language classes and higher education for adults, Australia and the UK present more opportunities than other welcoming countries; additionally, there are many programmes aimed at qualifying for entrance into the labour market, and this contributes to self-actualisation and overcoming some hardships. Nonetheless, many individuals, as shown through the case studies, might face disappointment while pursuing tertiary education or postgraduate degrees in these countries.

Accordingly, the case studies, presented in individual chapters, feature three subjects: Aaliyah, a Guinean woman studying in the UK; Andy, an Afghan man studying in Australia; and Sadiya, an Iraqi woman studying in the UK. Each chapter offers an in-depth account of their struggles. The authors clarify that their ‘relationships with Aaliyah, Andy and Sadiya did not cease at the end of our project; instead, we have maintained our connections and have watched them morph from researcher-participant/teacher-student interactions to something more akin to friendship, acknowledging the status dynamics of our initial encounters’ (116).

This part of the book sheds light on the hardships that refugee students face. For instance, Aaliyah’s higher education experience has not been wholly positive. She has faced stressful situations, both as a student and a staff member, in belonging to an ethnic minority. For example, when she enrolled in a postgraduate course to become a teacher, her tutor evaluated her teaching by saying ‘you’re very African’ (72), implying that she was not doing things right. ‘This constantly reinforced her differences as the other’ (72). Aaliyah eventually returned to working as a nursery nurse, her job before being awarded her degree.

Andy faced hardship when seeking suitable work because of his English language proficiency, and he could not complete the Enabling Programme (EP), withdrawing in 2015, less than a year after beginning. The experiences that he gained through working with the coalition forces in Afghanistan did not help him to get a related job in Australia; instead, he worked at a processing factory. However, in 2018, he had returned to a local university to start the EP again.

Sadiya, who worked as a journalist in Iraq, arrived in the UK in 2007 as an asylum seeker. She was fortunate that she had brought her Bachelor’s degree certificate; other refugees flee their homes without being able to do so. Nonetheless, when she converted her degree to the UK equivalent, it equated to a diploma-level qualification. She decided to undertake a top-up final undergraduate year to pursue her dream and get her Master’s degree. Sadiya’s writing assignments were disappointing: she has struggled to produce her competency in writing in English. She states that: ‘I was a writer before but now it is like they are saying “you cannot write”’ (87). However, her lecturer was helpful, unlike in the case of Aaliyah. Sadiya’s lecturer supported her to get her Bachelors degree, and now she pursues her Master’s course.

The concluding chapter provides an appraisal of the need to give more visibility to students with refugee backgrounds in the UK and Australia. The authors discuss ‘enabling effective institutional support’ (106) to refugee students, in relation to their access to higher education institutions. The three cases show the difficulties in developing pedagogical practices to meet their needs, particularly those which aim to encourage educational performance and achievement. Moreover, all the cases faced problems in relation to prevailing understandings of what constitutes the characteristics of a higher education student. Therefore, the authors call for more inclusive practices to welcome greater diversity. They also urge the institutions to better facilitate transitions in and out of higher education for refugees.

The book has some limitations. Most particularly, discourses on racism receive less attention, even though experiences of it seem apparent in aspects of the case studies. Nonetheless, Refugees in Higher Education opens a crucial debate: it generally challenges the context of global efforts to widen participation in higher education systems for students from refugee backgrounds, urging policymakers and institutions to offer more meaningful action. It is highly recommended for practitioners and scholars who work to provide learning opportunities to refugees, and it may also be a useful read for policymakers to consider opening up more learning spaces for refugees and asylum seekers.


Khalaf Mohamed Abdellatif, M. Ed., is a Ph.D. candidate in social education at Hiroshima University and an assistant lecturer at Cairo University. His professional career as a researcher has focused on issues related to action research, adult education, lifelong learning and community-based learning.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 

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