From Higher Education to Employment for Displaced Youth in Africa

A Bridge to the Future: From Higher Education to Employment for Displaced Youth in Africa

From July 2019 to September 2019, World University Service of Canada (WUSC) was contracted by Mastercard Foundation (MCF) to conduct research into bridging initiatives and programs that support displaced youth, including refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), in sub-Saharan Africa to access higher education and employment upon graduation. This mapping study, A Bridge to the Future: From Higher Education to Employment for Displaced Youth in Africa is the result of this research. The mapping study is focused on Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Nigeria, and centres the voices and perspectives of displaced youth with the goal of informing future programming for the MCF Scholars Program.

The mapping study highlights a number of remarkable initiatives across sub-Saharan Africa, and raises new insights on the complex relationship between displacement, education, post-graduate employment, and the legal frameworks and policies that impact access for displaced youth. This Executive Summary outlines some of the key insights and high-level recommendations. Details of promising bridging programs and postsecondary-employment linkage programs within each of the countries of study are found within the report.

Education alone cannot solve the many challenges and barriers that displaced youth face. These challenges are complex and multi-faceted. The barriers are those of policy, political will, and legal frameworks, as well as poverty and a weakened capacity of institutions. Despite all of these challenges, education continues to be a beacon of hope for displaced persons around the world. This is particularly true for refugees, as education provides the knowledge and skills that will help them in life, regardless of whether they resettle to a third country, are integrated locally, or return to their country or community of origin. One focus group participant said: “I have a belief that I am not going to be a refugee forever…I need skills to someday go home when there is peace.”

Higher education can deliver significant social and economic returns in displacement contexts, giving youth recognition for their skills and connecting them with resources and networks to succeed. When there is a critical mass of higher education opportunities for displaced youth, they act as a significant “pull factor” for students in lower grades, encouraging them to overcome the many barriers they face to stay in school. However, higher education institutions need to continue to be perceived as relevant, high quality and linked to meaningful employment opportunities. As one youth shared, “Education is what prepares you for livelihoods.” However, displaced youth also highlighted that even with higher education degrees, they struggle to find employment and access to economic opportunities.

As the number of protracted crises rises, it is more important than ever to offer hope and support to displaced youth through high quality education opportunities with recognized qualifications that contribute to meaningful economic and social opportunities. The following provides a high-level overview of the main findings in the mapping study. 

Education and employment are inextricably linked

Displaced youth frequently said that their aspirations for education and employment were interconnected. Youth felt that most higher education opportunities were not adequately linked to employment opportunities. They also had concerns about the opportunity cost of higher education when employment prospects were unclear. One youth said, “There is nothing to do once you are educated. What is the purpose?” Meeting this challenge requires work with higher education institutions to enhance the relevance of instruction to job market prospects and links with employers. It also requires structural changes to legal frameworks around refugees’ right to work.

Higher education for displaced youth has a “pipeline problem”

Displaced youth face significant barriers to access and complete secondary education. These affect the pipeline of displaced students (especially girls and young women) who are able to transition into higher education. The work to retain displaced students in school must begin at lower levels so that “pipeline programs” can support displaced youth, especially girls and young women, to access and succeed in the mainstream education system from primary-to-secondary and beyond.

Displaced youth desire better information about opportunities

Displaced youth highlighted challenges of access to both education and employment opportunities due to information gaps. Social networks in refugee and IDP communities are active — particularly in insular camp contexts. However, information is often distorted through these informal networks, and displaced youth do not have a place to go to verify information such as eligibility requirements for scholarship programs. Misinformation abounds and displaced youth frequently self-select out of opportunities because they lack the correct information. For this study, every single focus group participant asked to receive the findings. They have a keen interest in obtaining accurate information about programs and initiatives where they are living, as well as what is happening in other countries and contexts.

Mismatch of supply and demand

There are significant demand-side and supply-side barriers to the employment of displaced youth. Even in countries where refugees have the legal right to work, employers are often unclear on these rights, hold biases against hiring displaced persons, or do not understand the process. On the supply side, the number of displaced students able to complete postsecondary education is extremely low and the skills that displaced youth bring to the table are often unrecognized or misaligned with labour market needs. There continues to be challenges in providing meaningful employment to displaced youth — a particularly glaring issue when it comes from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other institutions serving displaced populations.

Displaced youth need practical employment experiences

Displaced youth need more support to prepare for and access meaningful work opportunities. This includes preparation on how to compete for opportunities, and how to access volunteer and paid work placement opportunities during studies and after graduation. Postsecondary institutions must engage more meaningfully with employers, implementing programs that support on-the-job learning such as internships and co-op programs. This is especially true for displaced youth who may struggle to get their foot in the door with employers that have never worked with displaced youth. The most beneficial programs are those that provide direct youth mentorship. This helps to prepare and guide them for work, as well as to liaise directly with employers to open up opportunities.

Public education and advocacy are needed

Among almost all the refugee youth research participants believe there is a need for greater public awareness and advocacy to support the inclusion of refugees in host societies. Refugees want to see public information and awareness about displaced youth and their experiences, as well as on refugee rights and how the policies of inclusion work in practice. Refugees want large funders and organizations to advocate for their legal rights, both in policy and practice, not just work within existing frameworks.

Challenges in refugee and host-communities are similar

Lack of meaningful opportunities for quality education and employment plague refugee and host communities alike; many refugees are hosted in areas that have been historically disadvantaged and have experienced underinvestment in education systems. All interventions must include integration support to strengthen host community and refugee relations. Refugee youth felt strongly that opportunities and pathways need to be available for local youth as well as displaced youth. While interventions that specifically target refugees are important, displaced youth simply want to be included in existing national systems and be eligible to access existing opportunities and programs. 

Displaced youth give back to their communities

Displaced youth who are fortunate enough to access education opportunities and formal employment are acutely aware of their luck. A common theme throughout discussions with displaced youth was that they sought to advocate for and to create opportunities for other displaced youth, especially those “left behind.” There are many existing refugee-led community-based organizations that are working to support education and employment for refugees and IDPs. One youth said that, “funders neglect the power of refugees and how we are already sharing our work and collaborating.” Providing funding and capacity support to community-based initiatives and working with existing local projects can have the biggest direct impact for displaced youth. Displaced youth want to continue to find ways to give back, no matter where their studies or opportunities take them. As one young refugee noted, “I don’t want to forget where I came from. I will always be a voice for refugees.”

Displaced youth want a seat at the table

Displaced youth are the experts in their own lives and experiences. They are best placed to develop and design solutions that create opportunities for other displaced youth. Throughout this study, refugees and IDPs were clear that they want to be included in the design of programs and interventions. Displaced youth also want to hear their own voices reflected more in research, including how research is conducted and by whom.

Long term investment in education is needed, including locally-developed solutions

It is challenging to craft sustainable, contextually relevant and scalable education programs for displaced youth, both due to the structural barriers they face, and to the constraints faced by donors, NGOs, and other stakeholders. Short-term and piecemeal programming can have devastating impacts on the lives of displaced youth, and have prompted many youth to start their own initiatives. As one youth stated, “We saw a need and the rate of abandonment from the international community and we needed to respond.” Refugee-led organizations can offer sustainable solutions. With consistent support and capacity building, they can be adapted and moved to scale.

Click here to read the full report

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