Under the auspices of His Excellency Dr. Khaled Abdel Ghaffar, Minister of Higher Education in the Arab Republic of Egypt, UNESCO and UNHCR organized on 28 and 29 March 2017 the first-ever Arab Regional Conference on Higher Education in Crisis Situations, under the theme “Synergizing Policies and Promising Practices to Enhance Access, Equity and Quality in the Arab Region.’ The Regional Conference was attended by over 80 participants, including UNESCO Beirut representatives, high level officials from Ministries and government agencies responsible for Higher Education from 15 Arab Member States and Turkey. Regional organizations, civil society organizations and academic institutions also took active part in the Conference.
The objective of the Conference, was to engage national authorities and stakeholders in promoting higher education for those affected by conflict, including refugees, and internally displaced persons, and to draw attention to the urgent need for higher education in times of crisis. The Conference was also in full alignment with the commitments made by Member States to the Sustainable Development Agenda, more specifically Goal 4, also known as Education 2030, which includes the provision of higher education and vulnerable populations.
Commending Member States’ tremendous efforts made by the refugee hosting governments and communities to accommodate and provide for those in need, including higher education opportunities, UNESCO expressed concern about the detrimental impact that the multiple and often protracted crises in the region will have on the lives and livelihoods of the millions of affected peoples, paying particular attention to the urgent need of enhancing knowledge and skills for youth. Furthermore, it was highlighted that while basic education in times of crisis enjoyed significant support, more attention was needed for post-basic education, in particular higher education.
In his opening remarks, Dr. Ezzeldeen Abousteit, representative from the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, Egypt, acknowledged the immense needs to cater for the learning needs of refugee and displaced youth and reminded the participants that they gathered to open the window of opportunities for refugee and displaced youth’s safe passage to higher education.
During the Conference, participants highlighted the challenges in the provision of higher education in crisis situations. These issues included policy barriers, coordination, recognition of prior learning, data management systems and capacity building.
Discussion around alternative pathways to higher education that could broaden access in a cost-effective way, such as Connected Learning Programmes, were also discussed.
After two days of fruitful, forward looking deliberations from the perspectives of Member States as well as those of participating organizations, the Meeting culminated in the adoption of the “Sharm El Sheikh Statement on Higher Education in Crisis Situations in the Arab States” which sets out recommendations by participants to be undertaken to improve access to higher education for those affected by crisis and overcome the main barriers. More specifically, participants endorsed the idea that there is a need to mainstream crisis in national higher education planning and policy. In addition, the recognition of studies and qualifications should be facilitated. Furthermore, it was agreed that cooperation should be enhanced at both the national and regional level between all relevant stakeholders, and that data collection and management should be improved for policy dialogue, and programme planning and implementation.
With this adoption UNESCO and UNHCR reaffirms their commitment to accompany and support Member States to build resilience and mitigate the harmful effects of crisis.