Europe’s universities open their doors to refugees

With 55,000 potential Syrian students in Europe, universities are using a series of workarounds to prevent a ‘lost generation’

九月 13, 2016
Migrants walking to registration point, Germany
Source: Getty

As the flow of refugees and migrants entering Europe from the Middle East and North Africa diminishes somewhat from its peak last autumn, thoughts are increasingly turning from how to register and house the newcomers to the perhaps even greater problem of ensuring that they receive a decent education.

For many, studying for a degree is likely to be key to integrating socially and economically into Europe. But, on the supply side, one major problem is that no one knows what the level of demand will be, according to Henriette Stöbe, who heads up the refugees initiative at the European University Association.

One estimate puts the number of Syrians in Europe who are either eligible to enter higher education or have had their university studies interrupted by the war at 55,000. There are thought to be at least 100,000 more in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.

These numbers “suggest that potential students are a resourceful group and are over-represented among those who manage to leave their country”, says Marit Egner, a senior adviser to the office for international relations and research support at the University of Oslo.

Another positive is that the Syrian education system, before the war, was relatively good, says Michael Gaebel, director of the EUA’s Higher Education Policy Unit. “They had relatively high literacy [and] almost everybody was in school.” But the conflict means that “there’s the potential for a lost generation” in educational terms to emerge.

But if that generation is to find its salvation in the European University system, even those migrants who are qualified for higher education in their home nations need to learn the language of their host country. In Germany, the country that has accepted the most migrants, state-sponsored language courses are not likely to be enough, says Kloot Brockmeyer, who is working to integrate refugees with academic backgrounds at the Magdeburg-Stendal University of Applied Sciences in northeastern Germany.

“The German asylum system has previously only allowed for state-supported language development in the form of integration courses, which only allow the candidate to achieve level B1 [“threshold or intermediate”] in German,” says Brockmeyer. The recommended standard for entry into German universities is considerably higher, at C1 (“effective operational proficiency or advanced”).

“Only in the rarest of cases can refugees fund their own language learning for academic purposes by themselves and, therefore, most are declined admission to universities due to their poor knowledge of German,” she adds. In response, her university has been offering free, intensive German lessons for those preparing to start degrees.

Then again, there is an argument that refugees should be taught in their native language given that it is unclear where they will ultimately end up living, says the EUA’s Gaebel. “If you think about the Syrian population, do you offer them courses in Arabic to help them to go back [to Syria]? Or the language of the host country, which might be Arabic, French or German?”

She also points out that if young refugees choose to take one of Germany’s highly regarded vocational courses, they may come into conflict with parents who believe that, as in the Middle East, only a traditional academic degree can guarantee a decent job.

Another issue is whether the arrival of large numbers of migrants should influence university curricula. For instance, universities are also thinking about what they teach their allied health students so that they are prepared to treat refugees in the local community, says William Mitchell, director of international development at the University of Bradford.

“[Refugees] have quite different problems,” Mitchell says. “These people are from different cultures. If you’re training up a young nurse or midwife you have to adjust the training accordingly.” One particular thing that they need to be aware of is female genital mutilation, he says.

Amid all these challenges, one silver lining for European universities is that the influx of refugees to countries with ageing populations should help them avoid the fate of Japanese institutions, where a declining native young population has caused campuses to close – although Gaebel cautions that refugee populations are liable to return home once the fighting stops.


Before European universities can even begin to start teaching refugees and migrants, they face a major bureaucratic hurdle: working out the qualification levels of newcomers who may have fled their countries without full documentation, or who come from very different educational systems.

Fortunately, the Syrian equivalent of the German Abitur – the set of examinations at the end of secondary school – is already recognised by German universities, according to Brockmeyer. But other migrants, such as Eritreans, come from far less comparable education systems, and will usually need to study at a preparatory college before entering a German university. The problem, according to Brockmeyer, is that state-run colleges “often do not have enough capacity” while private colleges are too expensive for most migrants.

To get around the problem of missing documents, her university is, for the first time in 30 years, using an obscure 1985 resolution that allows universities to admit students using aptitude tests instead of qualifications. The rule was originally created to help people fleeing from communist East Germany without their documents to continue their education in the West. But, Brockmeyer says, this workaround is now “rarely implemented in German universities as it is not widely known”.

Meanwhile, in Norway, the Norwegian Agency for Quality Assurance in Education (NOKUT) is attempting to process a rapidly rising number of Syrians who have applied to have their higher education qualifications officially recognised. More than 400 applied last year and at least 1,000 are expected in 2016.

At the moment, Syrian applications are taking an average of nearly four months to process – more than double the average – according to Stig Arne Skjerven, director of foreign education at NOKUT. “It takes a long time to get degrees verified at Syrian universities,” he explains. In an increasing number of cases, NOKUT is simply receiving no response from them at all.

When this happens, the agency has a special qualification recognition system for refugees, under which it conducts interviews to help gauge an applicant’s level of education. About two-thirds of Syrian qualifications are recognised by the body, but many vocational courses are not recognised as corresponding to Norwegian higher education, Skjerven says.

Online learning

With so many young people of university age having fled their home countries, online higher education is being touted as a cheap, effective and immediate way of educating refugees.

Kiron is a Berlin-based non-governmental organisation that offers refugees free English-language massive open online courses in business and economics, engineering, computer science and social sciences. Students undertake two years of online study first, for which there are no entry requirements or residential requirements; the point is that refugees can start studying immediately, without having to obtain proof of permission to stay in Germany, or master German to an undergraduate level. Both of these obstacles could otherwise halt their education for several years.

But, to complete their degrees, refugees must study at one of Kiron’s 18 partner universities for a further one or two years. The NGO also offers language training, career and psychological support and a buddy programme under which existing students help refugees to settle into their new city.

This blended approach reflects the fact that online courses on their own are not a complete solution to the higher education needs of refugees, according to Gaebel. “There’s a naive approach to online learning where people think it’s a remedy to everything”, rather like the hype around Moocs a few years ago, he says. For example, in refugee camps there are substantial problems with IT provision: “flashy videos” used in online courses often cannot run at a high enough quality in the camps, he says.

Online education also cannot be scaled up indefinitely without more staff, he adds. “Every university will tell you that their courses are successful because they have support for students”, be it emotional support or careers advice, he says. “This makes online education quite expensive.”

A further danger is that online education for refugees is taken up only by those who are already highly educated, as Moocs have been. “You will have some refugees who have sufficient pre-knowledge, skills and determination”, but others will not, Gaebel says. For reaching disadvantaged students, his view is that conventional education is more likely to succeed.



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