Challenges ahead for displaced Afghan students

“As a volunteer mentor for students affected by the Syrian civil war, I’ve seen first-hand how displacement disrupts tertiary education”

One of the many developing tragedies of the Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan is the loss of access to tertiary education for students displaced by the conflict, writes Boston area higher ed administrator and volunteer mentor for conflict-affected students, Abby Kawola.

Mass displacement of Afghan students – not to mention a potential return to education restrictions for women seen during Taliban rule of the 1990s – threaten to derail the dreams of the nearly 400,000 Afghans enrolled in tertiary education institutions across the country as of 2018. Like the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Venezuela, the current situation in Afghanistan highlights the need for the development of proactive rather than reactive support systems for tertiary education students impacted by displacement.

Mass displacement of Afghans

Since the beginning of the year, over 550,000 Afghans have been internally displaced due to the conflict. It’s difficult to know how many individuals fled the country in the days leading up to the Taliban’s capture of Kabul on August 15, but Iranian authorities have reported to UNHCR roughly 5,000 Afghan arrivals per day, which is three times the daily average.

Judging by the horrifying scenes of Afghans clinging to departing American planes at the airport in Kabul on August 16, there are thousands if not hundreds of thousands of Afghans desperate to get out of Afghanistan. The U.S. and allies will be accepting some Afghan refugees, but it appears inevitable that there will be a wave of Afghan refugees moving from the Middle East into Europe. With another refugee crisis comes the same challenges for tertiary education access seen with Syrians, Venezuelans, Iraqis and countless other groups affected by ongoing conflict over the last twenty years.

Barriers to tertiary education for displaced students 

As a volunteer mentor for students affected by the Syrian civil war, I’ve seen first-hand how displacement disrupts tertiary education. Beyond linguistic and financial challenges, the most unyielding of barriers for these students is meeting documentation requirements for enrolment in a new institution in their host community. In almost all cases, students who wish to enroll in tertiary education must provide transcripts proving completion of secondary education, or partial completion of tertiary education for those who wish to transfer credit. Unfortunately, many displaced students do not have access to their transcripts if they fled their homes with little time to prepare, or if their home institutions were destroyed or closed because of the conflict.

“Failing to obtain transcripts means that displaced students are unable to enroll in an institution in their host community”

Failing to obtain these transcripts means that displaced students are unable to enroll in an institution in their host community, or are forced to repeat years of education that they already completed in their home country.

I recently worked with a Syrian student living outside of the country who completed their undergraduate degree in Syria and wished to pursue graduate studies. They were ultimately forced to redo their undergraduate degree because of an error on their original transcript that was impossible to fix, as their Syrian institution could not be contacted from abroad. The impossibility of obtaining an accurate transcript meant years of delays and lost earnings.

Similar stories exist for Venezuelan refugee students trying to continue their tertiary education in neighboring Colombia. Unfortunately, a lack of access to tertiary education hinders the integration process for displaced individuals, and can result in severe economic, physical, and mental health issues.

We are likely to see a generation of young Afghan refugees facing the same barriers to enrolment, regardless of if they settle in the Middle East, the US or a European country. If these students do not have their original transcripts, they may be unable to obtain copies from their Afghan institutions, depending on how Taliban rule unfolds over the next few months.

Only time will tell if the Taliban will return to degrading the national education system and terrorising individual schools. In any case, it will likely be weeks if not months before any Afghan institutions reopen, meaning that displaced students will be unable to obtain the transcripts necessary to continue their education, and will ultimately face a more challenging integration process in their host communities.

Investment in proactive supports is sorely needed

Like the multiple refugee crises of the last 20 years, the current situation in Afghanistan underscores the dire need for a global effort to develop proactive rather than reactive supports to help students navigate the process of continuing their tertiary education in the event of displacement.

Existing offerings from Education for Humanity at Arizona State University and World Education Services among others address individual cases of missing documentation. Education for Humanity does this by offering earned admissions programs and WES does this through credential evaluation and reconstruction.

However, there are limited examples (beyond online programs like Kiron which circumvent the problem) of initiatives that are scalable and proactive in that they prepare for potential displacement and allow for displaced students to continue their education without the significant disruption of spending months to years rebuilding transcripts or redoing degrees.

A proactive support system for displaced students should include regional and global reciprocity agreements between individual institutions, and regional or global documentation platforms that will prevent future situations where documentation is impossible to obtain. Regional and global reciprocity agreements will allow displaced students to easily transfer to a partner institution in their host community and continue their studies. The global community must call on leading institutions in every world region to develop such reciprocity agreements with partner institutions in areas of existing or developing conflict.

Regional or global documentation platforms adopted by large institutions across the globe will safeguard student transcripts in the case of the destruction or closure of institutions due to conflict. An organisation like WES would be uniquely positioned to develop this type of platform.

These two ideas are different from current initiatives in that they proactively plan for the unfortunate inevitability of displacement, and once implemented, would help displaced students transition more smoothly into tertiary education programs in their host communities. It might seem pessimistic to plan for displacement, but the realities of climate change and ever-increasing global conflict mean that it would be irresponsible not to have support systems in place. While displaced Afghan students are likely to face the same enrollment challenges as the millions of displaced students before them, the global higher education community has both the responsibility and the power to change opportunities and outcomes for future displaced student populations.


About the author: Abby Kawola is a higher education administrator from the Boston area and a Volunteer Mentor at Paper Airplanes, a nonprofit organization registered in the USA that works to bridge gaps in language, higher education, and professional skills training for conflict-affected individuals. She is also a recent graduate of the MA in International Higher Education program at the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. All views expressed are those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of any affiliated organisations.