The Role of Higher Education in Fragile Contexts

How do systems of higher education rebuild in post-conflict and post-disaster settings? What is the role of higher education in peacebuilding? Can higher education be a mechanism to support conflict transformation on campus and communities? For scholars facing threats and dangers, what alternatives are available to them?  At the annual Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) conference in March, a panel of higher education scholars and practitioners discussed these questions about the role of higher education in fragile contexts. Discussion focused on their research and work in higher education conducted in places where war and insecurity exist, including in Afghanistan, Colombia, Côte d’Ivoire and Kenya.

Rebuilding Tertiary Education

Taken at a university in Western Kenya, the picture shows a sign at the student center installed after the 2007-2008 election violence threatened the campus and ravaged the local community

Taken at a university in Western Kenya, the picture shows a sign at the student center installed after the 2007-2008 election violence threatened the campus and ravaged the local community

The Afghanistan University Support and Workforce Development Program (USWDP) funded by USAID and implemented by FHI 360 uses cross-border university partnerships to strengthen the market-orientation of degree programs and build the capacity of teaching faculty at 11 Afghan universities. Thomas Qais Osso-Faqiri, USWDP Senior Manager for University Partnerships, presented research conducted by Dr. Elisabeth Wilson, Monitoring & Evaluation and Communications Advisor for the project. Wilson’s research provided evidence that understanding motivations of administrators and faculty members to participate in partnerships and having functional communication strategies are both critical to partnership success–the same as in non-conflict settings. Due to security concerns in Afghanistan, and the significant costs and complex logistics of meeting in third-country locations, university partners have had few opportunities to work side-by-side. This has made it difficult to tailor degree programs to the Afghan context and understand in what areas faculty members need technical support. Another challenge raised in the research presentation was the barriers faced by female faculty members and students that prevent them from participating in university activities. Not only are cultural norms that undervalue the role of females a hindrance, but also are the dangers to which women are exposed when working outside the home. The speed, quality, and viability of the cross-border partnerships are concerns as the program enters its final years of implementation. Whether there is political will and budget to continue what these partnerships have initiated to strengthen the higher education system in Afghanistan is unclear. Rebuilding a system of education that is relevant to national context is a long-term endeavor. This research showed that working in an unstable environment adds to the level of difficulty.

Peacebuilding through Higher Education

First cohort of Associate in Biomedical Equipment Technology (BMET) degree program at Kabul Medical University students. The BMET program is being developed through a partnership between Spokane Community College and Kabul Medical University as part of the Afghanistan University Support and Workforce Development Program.

First cohort of Associate in Biomedical Equipment Technology (BMET) degree program at Kabul Medical University students. The BMET program is being developed through a partnership between Spokane Community College and Kabul Medical University as part of the Afghanistan University Support and Workforce Development Program.

Spanning over five decades, Colombia’s armed conflict with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, Ejército del Pueblo (FARC-EP) was the oldest running conflict in South America and one of the oldest in the world.  After more than four years of negotiation, the Colombian Government and the FARC reached a peace agreement in September 2016. The main conclusions from the negotiation were condensed in a document crafted jointly by the negotiation teams from both parties, entitled Acuerdo Final para la Terminación del Conflicto y la Construcción de una Paz Estable y Duradera (Final Agreement for Ending the Conflict and Building a Stable and Durable Peace here in after: Final Agreement). Dr. Iván Pacheco, Research Fellow at the Boston College Center for International Higher Education and higher education consultant, presented a lively discussion of Colombian policy and the university role in peace. He concluded that the agreement acknowledged the importance of higher education in peacebuilding for the country. However, it takes a conservative approach mostly based on the tradition functions of higher education (such as teaching and research), but ignoring other functions such as those related to economic development. In contrast, some higher education institutions (universities and non-universities) have asserted their own agency and participated in peacebuilding at the local and national levels.

Transforming Conflict between Campus and Community

Taken outside a university in Western Kenya, the picture shows a sign that states "Prevent Bad Situations" - installed after the election of 2007-2008 incited violence in the community.

Taken outside a university in Western Kenya, the picture shows a sign that states “Prevent Bad Situations” – installed after the election of 2007-2008 incited violence in the community.

The next presentation elaborated on Pacheco’s work to consider how higher education institutions function as mechanisms for transformation in conflict contexts and how they respond to conflict on campus and in the community. The closing of schools and universities, targeting of educational stakeholder, diverting of resources from education, and inhibiting access to employment affiliated with education may have a significant impact on peace. The devastation of educational opportunities, in their myriad forms, in conflict-ridden regions leads inevitably to continued instability and strengthens the underlying conditions for violence. Using qualitative case study data from Kenya and Côte d’Ivoire, countries that suffered election violence in 2007-2008 and 2010-2011, respectively, Dr. Ane Turner Johnson, Associate Professor of Educational Services & Leadership at Rowan University, proposed that higher education institutions play a key role in conflict transformation, that is a qualitative shift in context, changing people, structures, and relationships. Using peace infrastructures as a theoretical framework, public universities may cultivate policy and practice associated with mission, outreach, and student outlets to build consensus and support conflict transformation on campus and in the community. Finally, she recommended that universities prioritize defining what may/may not be done on campus and creating internal protocols and risk reduction plans that increase campus security and safety during times of conflict.

Responding to Higher Education in Conflict

Danielle Alperin, Program Officer at the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund (IIE-SRF), presented on the work of IIE-SRF in supporting scholars facing threats or danger in their home countries by providing them with temporary academic positions and a safe environment in which to live and work.  Financial awards, along with matching financial support from the hosting institutions, support the scholars during year-long fellowships while professional development and networking opportunities prepare each scholar for on-going work beyond the fellowship. The fellowship has drawn more than 5,000 inquiries from more than 100 countries and nearly 700 scholars from 56 countries thus far have received support. From this, she reported, IIE-SRF has learned about the far-reaching impact of conflict on higher education. Scholars may be victims of anti-intellectualism, religious persecution, sectarian and ethnic tensions, or wider political conflicts. They may be deemed subversive to authoritarian regimes or obstacles to extremist factions vying for power. Whether in Syria or Iraq, Turkey or Tajikistan, IIE-SRF scholars have reported on a systemic destruction – scholar by scholar – of their national academies and the communities they serve. They are an easy target who, when silenced, send an effective message to civil society that dissent will not be tolerated. When given a voice, even from abroad, scholars can effect change, bring peace and help to rebuild.

Rebuilding Higher Education Post Disaster

On January 12, 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck near the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince. Although natural disasters are not uncommon, for Haiti, the earthquake compounded on pre-existing weaknesses. In addition to the catastrophic loss of lives and impact to infrastructure, the earthquake had a profound effect on the already severely under-resourced higher education system. Three years after the quake, Dr. Louise Michelle Vital, Visiting Scholar at the Boston College Center for International Higher Education, traveled to Haiti to conduct a case study of a student-centered higher education organization to examine their approach to addressing and responding to challenges in higher education there. Though not presented at the CIES panel, her research offers perspectives from university students and higher education professionals and researchers on the needs following the earthquake and revealed the complexity of the situation that remained. Since that time, higher education actors in Haiti and from across the globe have responded to the impact of the earthquake to the Haitian higher education system in several ways, including an emerging research body on higher education, the establishment of multi-university higher education consortiums, innovation at local universities, and country partnerships that offer scholarships for Haitian students studying abroad. Vital concludes that a multipronged approach, that includes the perspectives of students and recent graduates, is necessary for addressing the myriad of challenges within the Haitian higher education system during this period of rebuilding.

The CIES panel discussion underscored that higher education is not only a mechanism for teaching and learning, but an institution that contributes to economic and social stability. Donor funding policy and practice geared toward sustaining and supporting higher education has implications for peace and conflict transformation. Cross-border partnerships between universities to strengthen education systems that cultivate a skilled workforce have the potential to upend the poverty-conflict spiral. Governments have an important role to play in higher education by formally recognizing it in the peace process (via policy documents and peace agreements) and institutionalizing the role of universities in peacebuilding by making them a partner in the process. Moreover, protecting those that participate in the everyday operations of higher education—scholars, administrators, and staff members—from the vagaries of crisis should be a priority if poverty, insecurity, and conflict are to be subverted. Finally, a multipronged approach, including partnerships with non-university actors, students and graduates, and the government, is crucial for rebuilding higher education in post-disaster, under-resourced environments.

Join in a discussion with higher education scholars from the CIES panel in June 2017 for an ECCN webcast on higher education and conflict.

Other contributing authors to this blog post: Ivan Pacheco, Louise Michelle Vital, Sarah Wilcox, and Danielle Alperin.

Posted in Conflict Sensitivity in Programming, Design, Implement, Research and Evaluate for Better EiCC Programs, Peacebuilding Programming, Strengthen Local Institutions

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