(Updated: 25 September 2019)
A new survey of refugees aspiring to higher education in Germany found that 73 percent have already secured a place at a German university, a far higher proportion than many observers might anticipate.
A majority of Syrian, Iraqi, and Palestinian refugees applying to universities in Germany have graduated from high school in their countries of origin, the survey found, and many are accessing higher education through a program that for several years has been waiving its fees. The organization, “Uni-Assist,” which commissioned the survey, is supported by more than 180 German universities and helps international students apply to study at those institutions. The survey showed that refugees not only arrived in Europe’s most populous country with significant academic credentials, but are also eager to continue studying in their new country.
“A lot more refugees have already gained access to German higher education than (initially thought),” said Nora Sevbihiv Sinemillioglu, a project director with Uni-Assist, in a statement. A large majority of the poll’s respondents said they were content with their studies, she said, but more than 60 percent also indicated that they were struggling with studying in a foreign language. “Also finances are a challenge for more than 55 percent, as well as housing for almost one quarter.”
Abdalla Fahed, an engineering student from Syria living in Germany, knows that struggle well. He said he has difficulties with the German language and with supporting his studies.
“At first, it was very hard financing my education in Germany,” he explained. “I had three issues: I needed to prove that I had around 8,000 euros in the bank. And if you’re new here and can’t speak German and have a student visa, the visa office decides whether you are allowed to work. I wasn’t allowed to work until my German had improved. So added all up, I spent more than 10,000 euros on living expenses and German courses.”
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“It was hard for me, and a lot of people have problems making this work for them,” Fahed said. “But even when I was allowed to begin my studies, and allowed to work, I wasn’t able to find time to work. In the second semester I worked, but it was only 10 to 15 hours a week and there was a cap on what I was allowed to earn. In the end, I asked my brother for a loan.”
Financial Assistance Helps Many
Since March 2016, Uni-Assist has allowed refugee students who apply to one or more of its member universities to request an exemption from its fee of 75 euros for the first application and a smaller amount for each additional application. The organization’s survey, conducted in the spring of 2019, went out to nearly 20,000 people who had applied for the exemption. Of the 6,340 respondents, 81 percent were Syrian.
For 68 percent of the respondents, the cost assistance provided by Uni-Assist was “an important to very important” consideration, and 74 percent said they applied for the exemption because of financial need. Seventy-seven percent of those surveyed said they used Uni-Assist because that was the only way they could apply to the university of their choice.
Ninety-four percent of the respondents said they had graduated from high school in their home country, while 72 percent said they had completed some advanced course work and 46 percent said they had attained an academic degree or qualification.
Uni-Assist has helped many refugees apply to German universities free of charge, but the waiver of fees for refugees ends December 31, 2019, according to the organization’s website. The refugee students’ experience hasn’t been perfect, and some students have used a community page on Facebook to vent about busy phone lines, long waits for replies to emails, and a website that occasionally crashes.
“The server of uni-assist is down since many days,” wrote one user, Osama Mahmood of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on the Facebook page, which carries the organization’s logo but is not an official Uni-Assist page.
Some students had hoped that Uni-Assist could play a larger role than the one that it has carved out for itself so far.
“Uni-Assist wasn’t really helpful for me. It’s just more of a clearing house. You send them your documents, you pay a fee that’s 75 euros at first and 15 euros for each additional university you apply to,” said Fahed, who hadn’t realized he could get a fee waiver and so didn’t ask for it.
“I would also add that they didn’t work with the technical university I wanted to apply for, so it ended up not being relevant for me.”
In an email, Sinemillioglu responded that Uni-Assist was in fact a clearing house, serving as “a central point of contact for applying to a great number of universities.” She also noted that the organization’s 187 member universities amount to about half of Germany’s nearly 400 institutions of higher education.
“With our core responsibility of evaluating foreign school and university certificates and determining their equivalence to German educational standards, we are commissioned by our member universities to facilitate their admission procedures,” she wrote.
Fahed also complained about not getting enough financial help with educational costs in general.
“Even when my authorization came through, I found it hard to manage studies in German with my job,” he said. “More financial assistance would have been helpful.”
(An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the online page where some students have written complaints as Uni-Assist’s official Facebook page. It also misrepresented several findings from Uni-Assist’s survey.)