Open Doors

(October 1st, 2015) From providing food and shelter to collecting clothes and toys, help for refugees arriving in Europe currently adopts various forms. German universities do their share by setting up special programmes to support the start of a new and better life for many of them.

By land, by boat or by any other means they can, every day, more and more refugees arrive in Europe trying to escape violent war zones in their home countries. Once they settle and ask for asylum they have to endure an, often painful, waiting period in which they are not allowed to study, work or travel. For months or even years their life is essentially on stand-by. Recognising this problem several universities in Germany are now attempting to reverse this trend and use this period in a more positive way.

According to a recent survey carried out by the German Rectors' Conference (HRK) over 70 universities are now offering support activities especially developed for refugees heavily promoting their social integration. The type of support offered varies between universities, but the main goal is always to provide a way to recover the hope and self-confidence of the refugees after the traumatising experiences that many have gone through. “Universities are ready and willing to take the necessary measures to support refugees on their way to continue their higher education,” says Thomas Bohm, responsible for international students at HRK including refugees who would like to study at a German university.

As explained by Bohm, activities include “help with learning German, counselling in legal questions, searching for accommodation, joint meetings and music festivals with refugees, and internships in refugee camps”. In addition, support also includes financial assistance, including waiving semester and administration fees and access to grant funds. Refugees can attend some lectures and seminars, making use of their time in a more creative manner, as well as potentially developing new prospects for a future career. They also have the chance to take advantage of access to facilities, which would not be available to them otherwise, such as the library or sports centres.

The first university to offer this type of support was Bremen University, which opened their doors to refugees in April 2014. "What we do is we invite those who have an academic background to join our lectures at a time when they're supposed to do nothing," explains Jens Kemper, from the International Office Team at Bremen University. If the students are able to attend the entire programme, they receive a certificate at the end. This approach is proving to be very popular, with 80 students last year and 140 registered to start this semester. In addition, with the support also provided for those who haven't started their degree, the number of refugees studying at the university is likely to increase.

To facilitate their integration, the university is currently working out ways to transfer students without documentation to the German academic system. They would also like to see the certificate change to actual credit points usable towards achieving a qualification. Overall, the experience so far has been very good. "You see them develop," says Kemper. "They come without ambition, receiving charity, very passive, but after one semester you speak to them again and they become active and want to make something out of their lives."

Another example is the University of Hildesheim, in the North of Germany. Since spring 2015, this University tries to provide structure and daily routine as well as opportunities to think about the future, explains spokesperson Isa Lange. “Students and professors assist refugees on their educational pathway and language learning, but they also play football together, theatre and music.” There are currently about 20 refugees registered to study, with numbers expected to rise in 2016. They all arrive with different stories and qualifications, from those that never attended university to those that already have a degree and want to pursue it further. They may not have the security of a residence permit yet, but they are highly motivated to learn.

Many local students have also taken on a counselling role. They accompany the refugees on their daily routine at the university and form study groups to teach the new arrivals German. Importantly, the support is not just for university students but also includes 10 to 17 year olds. “Every week, after learning the language, they go on the sports field; refugees from Syria, Iraq and Serbia are playing together with kids born in Germany,” explains Lange. “We don't want to divide but bring people together.”

At the moment, all the support provided by these and other universities is mostly self-funded, but HRK expects the Federal Ministry of Education and Research to start supporting these activities in the near future. “We are in discussion with partner organisations and ministries for funding, in particular the study preparation,” explains Bohm. “It is also planned to write a handbook for the universities how to deal with student refugees. We will inform universities in different meetings, conferences and platforms on good practice.”

To encourage more universities to develop ways to support refugees, as well as build on existing infrastructures and expertise, the German's Rectors' Conference organised a workshop in September, with about 100 universities in attendance. “The workshop focussed on study preparation, legal questions of access for persons without written qualifications and financial support,” says Bohm. “We do not have numbers how many refugees are actually studying at universities or are planning to study in the coming semester,” concludes Bohm, but “we assume that there is a need for more information on study programmes and the conditions and possibilities for studying at German universities.”

P.S. The University of Leipzig recently launched a new platform for scientists who took refuge to resume or continue their research activities. “By creating an online account and providing information on previous research work and research interests, scientists of German research institutions and scientists who fled to Germany can use the platform to match research interests and communicate with each other,” the website states. For more information, check out:

Alex Reis

Photo: Fotolia/thomasschwerdt

Last Changes: 12.01.2015