The role of institutional practice, non-educational actors, and social networks in shaping refugee student lifeworlds in Ugandan higher education

Dr Rovincer Najjuma, Michael Gallagher, Dr Rebecca Nambi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Background: Set against the backdrop of increasing numbers of refugees both globally and in Uganda and with efforts at their integration into host societies, the discourses around refugee integration into higher education are in tension with institutional practice. Participation in higher education can be economically and socially empowering for refugees, yet this participation is contingent on a range of structures, practices and partnerships, many of which are not fully available to refugee students.

Aim: This paper provides an institutional, meta-level analysis by exploring how institutional policy and practice, and non-higher education actors such as formal and informal support organisations for refugee students, impact their participation in Ugandan higher education. Using the lived experiences of refugee students in Ugandan universities, alongside administrative accounts of administrators in higher education (higher education) and non-higher education actors in Uganda as an empirical case and drawing on a theoretical framework informed by Habermas’ lifeworlds, we examined higher educationIs mesa-level institutional practices and how non-higher educationIs actors support access and participation of refugee students.

Setting: The article reports on research conducted in Ugandan universities with a: refugee students in three private universities and one public university representing several regions in Uganda, b: administrative staff from these same universities, and c: staff from non-higher education support organisations that help navigate universities for refugee students.

Method: A qualitative research design was followed. The theoretical framework combines Boudeiu’s social reproduction with the lifeworlds of Habermas’ theory of communicative action. Data were generated through 25 semi-structured interviews with students and staff at universities, and staff at support organisations; desk research identifying policy language; and a survey. Open and axial coding cohered into themes.

Results: The data suggests that institutional policy homogeneously frames refugee students as international students, which in turn has a cascading impact on the lifeworlds of these students. This paper identifies three interrelated themes that expand on this. The first are university policies and administrative practices which are notable for their impact on structuring the lifeworlds of these universities and in their omission when a lack of policy impacts student action. The second is the role of non-higher education supporting organisations, which in many cases are international or domestic organisations that focus on refugee support and education. The third surfaces how non-academic structures, such as clubs and social networks designed to meet the students’ social welfare, are contingent to these non-higher education support organisations in structuring the lifeworlds of these students.

Conclusion: These themes interoperate and have a structuring effect on the lifeworlds of these students. The cascading impact in classifying refugee students as international students deserves further scrutiny, particularly in its impact on mesa (institutional) and micro (individual student) patterns of participation. This homogenous framing submerges the unique access and participation challenges refugee students face, reproducing complex institutional practices that limit access and participation. There is a need to explore how a less porous policy framework might work to further integrate these students into university life, and note how non-academic activities (clubs, social networks) alongside non-higher education support organisations might sit contingently with explicit policy changes in refugee student university participation.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages12
JournalTransformation in Higher Education
Publication statusPublished - 26 Jul 2022

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • refugees
  • forcibly displaced
  • refugee education
  • higher education
  • Uganda
  • social reproduction
  • lifeworlds
  • universities
  • communicative action


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