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Europe’s Universities Respond to Refugee Crisis

/ 17 Oct 2016

Europe’s Universities Respond to Refugee Crisis

BERLIN–Over the past year, many European universities have started up education programs in response to the continent’s refugee crisis, as more students fleeing conflict in their countries have applied to study in European degree programs and language courses.

“At the beginning, we saw a lot of ad hoc activities, where universities focused on helping with shelter or had an initiative aimed toward providing guidance to potential refugee students,” said Henriette Stöber, project officer at the European University Association (EUA) in Brussels. “We’re now seeing more and more sophisticated approaches that go more in the direction of actual bridging courses or actually enrolling students.”

Out of the more than one million refugees who came to Europe last year, as many as 50,000 will pursue higher education in European universities, according to the German Academic Exchange Service, or DAAD.

The European University Association this year has created an online “Refugees Welcome Map” where universities can share their initiatives supporting refugees. Over 200 initiatives have been submitted to date, and new ones continue to be accepted.

“We currently receive four or five new submissions each week,” said Stöber. “We want to use this input to showcase good practices. We want to develop training materials for university staff, including a webinar series and face-to-face workshops.”

One such university initiative is the “In(2)TU Berlin” program begun  last September by the Technical University of Berlin, which allows refugees to attend classes with the professor’s permission and take exams while learning German or waiting to receive recognition for past coursework.

“We had refugees coming to our office who wanted to begin something immediately,” said Katharina Kube, the head of In(2)TU Berlin. “We started to think about what we could offer them in a way that made sense.”

The program offers students an education as well as exposure to academic and university life in Germany, said Kube. And it gives refugees an opportunity to connect to a new environment by meeting German students, for example.

“They are treated just like regular students, and have the same challenges, like passing exams,” she said. “They’re participating in a genuine academic environment. The only difference is they are not officially enrolled.”

Still, students can earn credits and apply them to a degree program if they are later admitted to the TU, said Baris Ünal of the TU’s Student Counseling Services.

“We are here to help people move forward with their careers, and we do it all the time, so why not [do the same for] refugees?” asked Ünal. “Many of them have a background in engineering, for example, so it’s not that different from advising your average student.”

A total of 307 refugees have taken part in the program since it began. More than 250 more have expressed an interest in joining. One hundred refugees are currently enrolled in German language classes at TU Berlin.

Feedback from the students so far has been positive, Kube said. Several students have even returned to the counseling office for guidance on preparing for exams, which Kube said is a sign they are getting integrated into student life.

Refugees study German at Technical University of Berlin.

Refugees study German at Technical University of Berlin. Photo Credit: TU Berlin/Anna Groh.

Still, connecting with aspiring students has been challenging for some universities, said the EUA’s Stöber. “In some cases, there is a ‘missing link’ where universities have an initiative or scholarship, but have a hard time identifying and reaching potential refugee students and researchers,” she said. “They might be in a reception center close by, but there is hardly any collaboration so far with regional authorities or these centers.”

To remedy this shortcoming, universities in some countries are actively reaching out to government institutions to connect with refugees.

“We’ve seen several cases of Norwegian universities working together,” said Stöber, “and also with employment agencies or the Ministry of Education, on topics like recognition and fast tracking to the labor market.”

The University of Oslo, for instance, held an information day along with nonprofit groups and other organizations last December.

“We made a lot of information available that hadn’t been before,” said Anna Kolberg Buverud, senior adviser at the University of Oslo’s Office for International Relations. “We were told that this information spread relatively fast in refugee Facebook groups, and it seems to have had an impact.”

But Buverud expects more degree-program applicants once refugees finish their language courses. In the meantime, Norwegian universities are looking into other ways to help refugees make the most of their time while they learn Norwegian, including allowing them to attend classes and sit for exams without being enrolled, in an approach similar to that of the Technical University of Berlin.

“We are looking into changing some regulations so that refugees with at least one higher degree can apply to take exams without being admitted to a study program,” said Buverud. “This way they can fill individual gaps in their education before they continue at the appropriate level.”

Representatives of the University of Leuven in Belgium have also found it effective to work closely with local refugee-assistance institutions. They met with social workers and integration officers earlier this year to coordinate efforts.

“Before, people were coming in with questions and we couldn’t always spend the necessary time with them,” said Katelijne Roelandt of Leuven’s international admissions office.  “It was disrespectful. But now applicants can get answers from integration staff and social workers, too.”

As elsewhere, learning the local language —in this case Dutch—is the biggest obstacle, she said. Students can begin to apply for study programs while they are still in languages courses, however.

“The turnaround is very fast – some students are in language classes only a few months after arriving in Belgium,” said Roelandt, “and if they are really good, they can get up to B2 [mid-level competence] in a year and start to study.”

Still, other administrators said some institutions have been slow to recognize the important role of education in supporting refugees. Parts of the Norwegian government are still largely focused on getting immigrants into the workforce, without understanding that higher education is essential for success there, said Buverud. And immigrants with a higher education sometimes require time and additional courses to adjust their studies to a European context, she added.

The EUA’s Stöber concurred and said that universities still face bureaucratic and other obstacles, like funding and refugees’ legal status.

“It has become clear that universities in some countries cannot directly enroll people on different refugee or protection statuses,” she said, adding that many refugees don’t have their academic transcripts, passports, birth certificates and other papers that schools are often required by law to verify. “Depending on the country, there are different situations with regards to recognition of documentation.”

Bureaucratic restrictions related to legal status also prevent refugee students from moving to a university in another European country that would potentially like to host them, she said. “This is an item that needs to be addressed from the policy level. Universities themselves cannot solve this.”

Personal efforts from university leaders have nevertheless helped some countries achieve much in a short time. The rector of the University of Oslo established a networking group for Norwegian schools and immigration authorities to discuss issues like the recognition of foreign educational credentials. “I think this is quite unique in Europe,” said Oslo’s Buverud, “and it has made it possible to navigate these challenges much faster than in a more fragmented country perhaps.”

The European University Association welcomes such collaboration. “We are always happy to see universities getting together with other universities and rolling out bridging or language courses together,” Stöber said. “These collaborations can have a larger impact.”

Stöber said similar cooperation initiatives are also underway in the German city-state of Bremen. And the Association of Universities in the Netherlands has put together a task force for refugees in higher education to facilitate preparatory programs and clear up bottlenecks in the admissions process, she added.

Berlin’s Ünal said meeting with refugees themselves helped the Technical University learn about what potential students will need  to succeed in higher education. “Many of them have the same questions and issues as an 18-year-old German student,” he said. “Just by talking and listening, you see what students need and develop from there.”

Buverud said the insights he gained went beyond the needs of the refugee as students.

“Many told me at our information day that it was the first time they felt they were seen as a person again since they fled. Refugee recognition can be a stamp that is hard to get away from,” she said. “This is not just about helping refugees, it’s about helping people reach their potential and continue on a path they had chosen.”




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