University of London launches first-ever distance learning master's in refugee studies

A young refugee on a hilltop overlooking the Farchana's camp in Eastern Chad. Photo by: F. Noy / UNHCR / CC BY

A humanitarian aid worker in a refugee camp in Thailand; a nongovernmental organization leader based at the Colombian border; a junior staffer in a U.N. agency in Switzerland: they may all be dealing with similar issues, but rarely do they have the opportunity to explore those issues in depth together, under the guidance of leading experts in their field.

That may change thanks to a new distance learning program, which aims to open up access to education on refugee issues by offering a world-class learning experience and the opportunity to tap into a global network of expertise.

The University of London’s Master of Arts in refugee protection and forced migration studies, launching this October, will be the first ever distance learning postgraduate course in the subject.

The part-time, two-year program was developed by the Refugee Law Initiative, a research and training center within the University of London at the heart of a global network of some 800 academics, policy makers, lawyers and humanitarian practitioners.

The RLI will be drawing on that network to deliver the course, with leading specialists teaching the various modules and supervising students. As such, a student’s dissertation supervisor is likely to be “one of the world’s leading experts in that field,” said David James Cantor, program director of the new course and director and founder of the RLI.

Democratizing access

The course, which is aimed both at those already working on refugee issues and those looking to enter the sector, was developed to fill what the RLI had identified as a gap in the provision of quality postgraduate education in the field.

David James Cantor, founder and director of the Refugee Law Initiative. Photo by: University of London

“There are a number of on-campus courses on refugee and forced migration issues, but none are available to people who can’t come and study — whether for financial or professional or other reasons — in places like London, New York or Toronto,” Cantor said. “They have no way to access that knowledge or to build up their own expertise. So this, in a sense, is trying to democratize access to the field itself.”

With distance learning, students can avoid the often prohibitive costs of international tuition fees — there is one set fee level for all students — visas, airfares and accommodation.

And there’s no need to give up commitments at home, since the course is flexible enough to fit around a full-time job and also offers two intakes per year. Though students are expected to put in roughly 15 to 20 hours of study per week, they set their own schedule and do not need to be in front of a computer at a set time each week.

The study material, though accessed online, will not require large bandwidth — a deliberate decision so as not to exclude those in locations where this would be a barrier.

“We are very keen that all our students have the same experience on the course,” Cantor said.

This is also why the program does not include a summer school, a feature that some distance learning providers offer so that students can meet and work face to face for a short period.

“We don’t want some students to be able to come to London, getting additional benefits that others, either financially or in terms of time, cannot afford,” he added.

Meeting global needs

Forced displacement is not a new phenomenon. But with current long-running conflicts — including in Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia — recently pushing the numbers of those forced to flee their homes past 50 million for the first time since World War II, the need for staff with a sound understanding of international refugee law is not likely to diminish any time soon.

This is the case not only for organizations like the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, the International Organization for Migration or the various governmental and nongovernmental organizations working directly with or for displaced populations.

It also applies to numerous other frontline humanitarian organizations, for instance those delivering medical assistance, deployed in developing countries — which in 2013 hosted 86 percent of the world’s refugees.

The master’s program in refugee protection and forced migration studies aims to respond to these needs, offering core modules on human rights and refugee law, and on interdisciplinary forced migration studies.

As well as completing a dissertation, students also choose from a range of optional modules dealing with specific themes (including statelessness, internal displacement, healthcare, gender and sexual identity) or regions, such as Latin America, Africa and the European Union.

A practical focus

The course encourages students to not only to think constructively about related policy and law, but also to develop actual policy recommendations.

“Working in this field is unusual, because one not only wears the hat of an academic — a student of humanity, as it were — there’s also the imperative to try to use that knowledge to improve the situation of the subjects of one's own research,” said Cantor, who has worked in the refugee sector for the past 15 years.

Law and policy are the key tools for improving the situation of refugees and other displaced persons, he said, so while a critique of current laws and policies by itself can be useful, it is “of far less value than the positive recommendations that need to be generated.”

This strong vocational emphasis is reflected throughout the course, with modules equipping students with practical skills such as preparing policy briefs or legal documents, or analyzing how the law applies to on-the-ground situations to see how the law applies there.

An optional practice-based module takes this even further, bringing in specialists to teach campaigning, fundraising, or advocacy, for instance, within a human rights and refugee context. For their assessment, students then focus on a particular area: on fundraising, a student might submit a funding bid to be assessed by a tutor with significant practical experience in the grants and trusts sector.

Interactive learning in a growing network

While any distance learning format inevitably means missing out on face to face contact, the course providers hope to encourage interaction both through informal café-style online forums and through the assignments they set.

For example, students may be assigned practical problem-solving scenarios, requiring them to complete a reading task and post their reactions online — and then to respond to each other’s comments. Tutors constantly review the student-led discussions, providing new information at times to lead the debate in a different direction. Interactive exercises like this, Cantor said, are a great way of building analytical skills while exposing students to one another’s way of thinking.

This interaction within a wide virtual network is likely to be a major draw for potential applicants. Not only will students benefit from world-class teaching expertise during the course itself; they will also become part of the RLI hub of fellow students, professionals and academics — a valuable resource for their future careers.

The RLI also sees the new master’s course as an opportunity to expand its reach — a major priority for an organization seeking to build expertise and promote discussion across borders.

“Our hope is that this course allows us to grow those networks to places where maybe we’ve not had so much presence, and to involve people who have not yet had the confidence to become part of these communities,” Cantor said.

“The new course is as much about disseminating academic knowledge as building these networks,” he added. “I think that’s going to be a really important part of the student experience.”

The application deadline for the first intake of the course is September 1, 2014. To find out more or to apply, see

This article was sponsored by the University of London. Find out more about the university here.

You know you need a postgraduate degree to advance in a global development career, but deciding on a program, degree and specialization can be overwhelming. In partnership with APSIA, Duke Center for International Development and the MPA/ID Program at the Harvard Kennedy School, we are digging into all things graduate school and global development in a weeklong series called Grad School Week. Join online events and read more advice on pursuing a post-graduate education here.

About the author

  • Anna Patton

    Anna Patton is a freelance journalist and media facilitator specializing in global development and social enterprise. Currently based in London, she previously worked with development NGOs and EU/government institutions in Berlin, Brussels and Dar es Salaam as well as in the U.K., and has led media projects with grass-roots communities in Uganda and Kenya. Anna has an master’s degree in European studies — specializing in EU development policy — and is a fellow of the On Purpose social enterprise program.

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