Borderless Higher Education for Refugees Initiative (BHER)

BHER aims to improve quality of primary and secondary education in refugee camps and host communities in Dadaab, Kenya by increasing access to higher education.
Tertiary education

Borderless Higher Education for Refugees Initiative (BHER)

BHER aims to improve quality of primary and secondary education in refugee camps and host communities in Dadaab, Kenya by increasing access to higher education.

Contact details 

Submitted by: Killashandra Rashid, Program Officer, Global Affairs Canada – International Humanitarian Assistance Bureau 

Website: (videos)  



Introduction to the project







February 2013 - July 2019 (GAC component)


The project provides local host communities in Kenya, in addition to refugee communities, with access to university education programs. Kenya is host to one of the largest refugee camps of extended asylum in the world, Dadaab. The Government of Kenya (GoK) manages humanitarian and development assistance for protracted refugees aided by UNHCR and other international and national agencies in Dadaab. The project aims to improve the quality of education in host/home countries concerned with building livelihoods in peaceful, equitable and socially inclusive societies. 

The project directly improved the quality of education at the primary and secondary level in refugee camps in Dadaab. The project is building a cadre of trained teachers and skilled refugees ready to contribute to teaching the next generation from their communities in host countries and back home after they can return, thereby increasing self-reliance and aiding youth in their life transition away from precarious forms of employment. 

Project aims

The BHER initiative aimed to improve quality of education at the primary and secondary levels in refugee camps and local host communities in Dadaab, Kenya by drawing on Canadian and Kenyan academic expertise. 

Through the provision of inclusive and gender sensitive university teacher education certificate and diploma programs at the primary and secondary levels, the project trained 590 men and women. It was estimated that student-teachers would contribute to increasing and improving the delivery of education for 18,000 children and youth in the refugee camps and locally. The project seeks to serve as a model for possible replication in other developing countries offering asylum to refugees

Resources used 

  • Innovative academic partnerships between York University and the University of British Colombia in Canada, and Kenyatta University, Moi University, and a Kenyan non-governmental organisation Windle International - Kenya (WIK) in Kenya.
  • High quality practical university education brought to refugee camps via distance learning. 
  • Support from the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Nairobi and Dadaab and the Open Society Foundations (OSF) also supported the operations of the BHER project in country. 


There are five implementing partners to the BHER initiative:

  • Canada
  • York University
  • University of British Columbia
  • Kenyatta University
  • Moi University
  • Windle International Kenya.

 Additional partners include: 

  • UNHCR 
  • Ministry of Education, Kenya

The BHER initiative has received support from:

  • Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC)
  • MasterCard Foundation
  • Global Affairs Canada
  • Open Society Foundations

Challenges and how they were overcome 

  • Retention of students in university programs: Resettlement, competing opportunities and family obligations have affected student participation and retention numbers. Retention rates improved as a result of intensive work to closely follow-up and accommodate various needs, including associated with gender specific responsibilities women students needs to meet in their household and communities, and with regards to challenges in understanding science and mathematics concept online. BHER has retained approximately 73% of the 414 students who engaged with studies across all Certificate, Diploma, and Degree programs  
  • Program support and delivery: An additional challenge was the need to develop consistent institutional practices and policies toward all BHER students. Over the course of the Project, many insightful and effective forms of accommodation were developed. However, they were not adopted evenly across all programs and partner institutions. This unevenness created situations in which strategies for the retention of women that had worked in one or more program were not adopted in others due to differences in institutional approach or policy. In neither case was this fact simply idiosyncratic on the part of the given institution that did not adopt the measure, however. Policy differences and differences of practice are real and often quite intractable in university governance. 
  • Access: Students continue to face economic, social and cultural barriers in fully accessing the programs on offer. BHER addressed barriers to access through mobilization of additional funding and use of local resources such as camp school computer facilities and portable wireless modems to increase access in courses delivered by each program. 

Results of the Good Practice 

  • 68% of teachers trained in BHER programs continue to practice teaching in the schools in the camps and locally. The remaining 32% are contributing to education and community development as laboratory assistants, peer educators or hygiene monitors in the camps. 
  • 86% of students surveyed in degree programs in September 2018 reported improved gender-sensitivity in their instruction. 54% reported taking measures to do so concretely. 
  • 90% of students affirmed that programs offered through the BHER Consortium had improved their pedagogy and their grasp of their teaching subjects.  
  • 74% of students across all programs offered through the BHER Consortium have completed/were on track to complete the programs in which they were enrolled. 

Next steps 

York University will continue working with BHER Kenyan partners KU and WIK with funding from OSF. Applications have also made to Canada to continue the BHER project in Dadaab and extend and develop it in Somalia. 

Recommendations and lessons learned for future roll-out: 

  • Universities can work in humanitarian settings: the experience of the BHER project shows that universities can work in humanitarian settings themselves and provide services for marginalized populations. The experience has shown that universities can develop a high tolerance for working amidst insecurity and unpredictability. 
  • Blended Program Delivery: the project shows that a combination of online and face-to-face instruction is crucial for learning. The need for alternative forms of online course delivery became more pressing as the security situation in Dadaab changed. At the same time, students need considerable support and guidance in order to become successful online learners, making face-to-face contact with instructors crucial to succeed in online courses. Online training is useful in emergency settings, but not by itself sufficient for providing the types of robust education needed in these regions. We would strongly encourage any university or educational institution considering working in such areas to plan for and develop various blended forms of instruction and the physical infrastructure necessary for their delivery. 
  • Women’s Participation in Higher Education: One of the most important lessons learned by the BHER project is that barriers to women’s participation in higher education in crisis situations are surmountable if recruitment strategies are vigorously pursued and if effective accommodations are employed early in programs to allow women the necessary time and supports to adjust to their new educational environment and demands, e.g. providing adequate sanitary facilities and nursing accommodations for mothers. It is necessary to extensively research the practices that limit women’s participation in certain areas of society, including education, with sensitivity to local populations. 
  • Advanced Policy Discussions with Partner Institutions: Deep institutional agreement and consistent educational policy application are essential to the success of cross-institutional education programs such as those offered by the BHER Consortium. We would strongly recommend that serious, protracted, and focused institutional discussions occur between partner institutions at the highest levels to ensure this agreement and consistency.