College of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences Theses and Dissertations

Graduation Date


Document Type


Department/Program Conferring Degree

Refugee & Forced Migration Studies


refugee higher education, refugee post-secondary education, refugee tertiary, displaced student higher education, displaced student tertiary education


The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) lists three “durable” pathways for displaced persons to address global displacement: “voluntary repatriation,” “local integration” into the initial host community, or third-country “resettlement.” At present, 78% of refugees displaced worldwide remain in a protracted refugee situation, indicating shortcomings in these three pathways. As global displacement surges and the current refugee protection regime fails to offer timely pathways out of displacement, alternative solutions via complementary pathways are critical. Higher Education (HE) pathways, such as scholarships to study at universities, can be one option, and the UNHCR has committed to expanding complementary HE pathways as part of its Refugee Education 2030 strategy.

As of 2021, only five percent of refugee students globally attended a Higher Education (HE) institution compared to a thirty-nine percent global average. This statistic is sobering because HE is a “critical link between learning and earning, allowing young people to thrive and transition to the pursuit of sustainable futures.” In Thailand, displaced communities have developed education systems in camps, urban areas, and elsewhere along the border. In 2018, I taught 200 secondary-level Karen students in one of the camps in northern Thailand who expressed dreams of continuing their studies outside of the camp at universities. In this thesis project, I will explore how Higher Education (HE) pathways for displaced students can be utilized as one solution for protracted refugee situations (PRS) because it unites displaced communities and host nations based on common interests. I conducted my research in Thailand, the first country of asylum for many displaced persons from Burma/Myanmar.

I designed my research using a pragmatic approach driven by my hypothesis that HE can satisfy concrete interests across diverse stakeholder groups. Viable solutions for global displacement must stem from the aligned and complementary interests of key stakeholders in a particular displacement situation, such as the protracted displacement situation of communities from Burma in Thailand. During my research, I sought to understand stakeholders' beliefs, needs, and concerns, which I label as their “interests,” to account for the social, political, and cultural dynamics at play.

In Thailand, there are strong and organized efforts from displaced community leadership, governing bodies, religious leaders, and ethnic education entities to develop a robust education system for students in the camps and those displaced students living outside the camps. There are also NGOs and foundations supporting the education system. These include systems of education within the camps run by entities such as the Karen Refugee Committee Education Entity (KRCEE), Migrant Learning Centers (MLCs) along the border outside of the camps, and a variety of other programs such as General Education Development (GED) programs and religiously-affiliated schools. The curriculum varies, and students desiring to go on to HE navigate this wide-ranging education system, often through winding paths, to pursue their education goals.

Thailand, a long-time host nation to displaced communities, has demonstrated a willingness and commitment to increasing access to HE for displaced students. However, their programs should be improved and expanded upon. In Thailand, as in any host country for displaced peoples, various stakeholders exist, including the host and displaced community governments and citizenry, NGOs, education institutions, the business and economic development sector, international agencies, and foreign aid departments. Therefore, I conducted research to understand stakeholder interests and analyzed their interests for existing synergy to ascertain the viability of HE as a solution for protracted displacement in Thailand.

My research methodology was primarily qualitative. I first examined what interests define the purpose and utility of HE for displaced students from Burma (Myanmar) residing in Thailand. I identified ten stakeholder groups as relevant to the Thailand-Burma protracted displacement context. Using a mixture of purposive and snowball sampling, I recruited representatives from each stakeholder group. During three months of field research in Thailand, I conducted thirty-four formal interviews with representatives across seven stakeholder groups to identify interests. Finally, I employed a combination of informal discussions, fieldwork, and secondary research to conclude some of the remaining three stakeholders’ interests.

Second, I examined the perceived value-add of HE programs for displaced students from Burma (Myanmar) in Thailand. During three months of field research in Thailand, I used a snowball sampling method to interview fourteen students who had completed a HE program in Thailand about their academic and post-graduation experiences. In addition, I used a combined approach of purposive sampling and snowball sampling to interview other closely connected stakeholders, such as professors, employers, and community leaders, to understand the value of a HE. Together, the results demonstrate that within Thailand, diverse stakeholders have a collective interest in increasing and improving higher education (HE) opportunities for displaced students from Burma (Myanmar). HE has contributed value to the lives of displaced students, their community, and the host country, but students face challenges that prevent the full value potential from being realized. Both an understanding of where stakeholder interests align and policy solutions are needed to realize the full value potential of higher education across diverse stakeholder groups. The remaining sections of my thesis will provide evidence for this stance and suggest several policy enhancements.