Connecting refugees with Higher Education

The project in brief

The project is implemented by Connecting and Equipping Refugees to Tertiary Education (CERTE) in Malaysia. The project began in August 2016 and there have been two editions a year since. At this time, the upcoming CERTE 9 will take place in June 2023. We have delivered the programme to one cohort per annum, but we are looking to extend that in response to student demand. We are also aiming to implement this model in Thailand, New Zealand, USA, Canada and eventually globally.

CERTE developed in Malaysia out of a wish to support adult refugees and asylum seekers in transitioning to university education. The course was designed with two objectives for participants. The first was to improve knowledge transfer from tertiary education providers to potential candidates about existing opportunities for tertiary education. The second was to improve participants’ soft skills to equip them to apply for and be accepted into tertiary programs, in particular interview skills, writing applications and research skills. The objectives were addressed through intensive workshops, campus visits, networking with tertiary providers, and the mentoring program.

The main goals of the project are to: 

  • Motivate students to continue their education.
  • Support them with the process of applying to university.
  • Help them develop a strong university application.
  • Increase student awareness of some of the skills they will need to succeed in HE (Higher Education) and point them to resources to help them develop those skills.
  • Introduce students to universities and courses which are open to refugees.
  • Create a sustainable CERTE course, building on the previous CERTE courses operating since 2017.
Students sit in a classroom

Throughout all these years, CERTE has always been “goal-oriented” and run by collaborative/voluntary multi-stakeholders. It was sustainable for all these years not because of a big budget but because of dedicated people, who believed in inclusivity and equality in higher education. Other elements that facilitated the implementation of the project included:

  • Local & International volunteers (session leaders, mentors, team members). The session facilitators were mainly the HE (Higher Education) Professionals, who have a good understanding of what is required for university study.
  • Cooperation among Community Learning Centres for applications and interviews.
  • Financial support from OUR (Opening Universities of Refugees).
  • Cooperation and Collaboration with the University Stakeholders (especially Brickfields Asia College, Monash University and Uni Razak) to offer space and conduct campus visits.

Main activities of the Good Practice

This was an intensive course delivered to participants during weekends over a month period.

The course included a range of workshops, including:

  • How to write an effective university application.
  • Interview skills.
  • Effective study at university.
  • Online study.
  • Culture and identity.
  • Mental health awareness.
  • Presentation and Teamwork skills
  • Mentorship (1:1) - Participants were each assigned a mentor to support them in preparing for university study. In addition, the course gave them the opportunity to build networks with peers in a similar situation.
  • Campus Visits - Alongside the skill development and support, participants were introduced to the range of tertiary courses available for refugee students in Malaysia. They were given the opportunity to observe classes in these institutions and to meet lecturers and students.

Deliverables students obtained from the course were:

  1. A CV plus a draft personal statement for university applications.
  2. A mock interview with a mentor.
  3. A group project on a topic of academic interest.
  4. Engagement with online learning.
  5. An independent learning plan, with identification of personal strengths and weaknesses.\
Students wearing masks in a laboratory classroom

Partners involved

What challenges were encountered in delivering the project and how were they overcome?


  • Because of Covid, the 2021 cohort was delivered entirely online, using instructors and mentors from around the world.
  • We are looking for sustainable funding. Team members, mentors and session leaders (Higher Education Professionals) have been serving in the course and offering their skills out of goodwill and on a volunteer basis.

How they were overcome

The main challenges faced by refugee students seeking tertiary education in Malaysia are a lack of information about existing opportunities, poor knowledge of the application process, and insufficient soft skills required to gain access. It is argued that the challenges to accessing tertiary education can be understood in terms of unfamiliarity with the higher education field in Malaysia. This leads to a lack of opportunity to make use of or develop existing social and cultural capital when applying to tertiary programmes or planning potential pathways to higher education.

Yes, Partners worked together with us to overcome these issues, the funding until now has been supported by OUR (Opening Universities for Refugees) whereas UNHCR helped with conversations with the potential university stakeholders in opening up opportunities for refugees. On the other hand, recently came up with the Hi-Ed Scholarship Program which offers scholarships to refugees. Furthermore, Brickfields Asia College and Monash University cooperated by offering the space and conducting campus visits.

Results of the Good Practice

  • 120 alumni, of whom 41 have been admitted to tertiary education.
  • Survey self-reported data indicate success in achieving project aims.
  • Participants have reported greater confidence in soft skills and renewed hope for accessing tertiary education.
  • Participants have also reported an increased awareness of aspects of the tertiary education culture in the receiving institutions that they hadn’t previously considered, such as the importance of plagiarism and how to avoid it.
  • Benefits of the program have also been shared within refugee communities through participants, widening the knowledge transfer and building greater awareness of tertiary education opportunities and requirements for applying.
Students in a classroom debating

In what way does the good practice meet one or more of the four objectives of the Global Compact on Refugees?

Objective 2: Enhance refugee self-reliance

Enhancing knowledge about the processes and expectations involved in applying to higher education courses so refugees can more confidently apply for higher education opportunities available.

Next steps

Further cohorts are planned. In addition, we are interested in extending the project to other regional and national contexts such as Thailand, New Zealand, the USA, and Canada.

Are there areas in which support would be required to continue and/or scale up your good practice?

We would be interested in sharing our curriculum and delivery model with groups working in other contexts. We are happy to provide the workshop templates and project implementation details to other universities and working groups so that they can replicate this model of CERTE in their own regions/context.

Submitted by

Amna Shah, Program Coordinator CERTE 2020-2022 / Co-Program Coordinator CERTE 2023 ([email protected])

Dr Gul Inanc, Founder, Opening Universities for Refugees (OUR) ([email protected])

Dr Lucy Bailey, Associate Professor & Acting Dean, Bahrain Teacher's College at the University of Bahrain ([email protected])

Johnathan Birtwell, Research Fellow, University of Auckland ([email protected])

Dr Robin Duncan, Dean of the Metcalf School of Education at California Baptist University ([email protected])