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Universities lay the groundwork for integration

In this guest article, DAAD Secretary General, Dorothea Rüland provides in-depth insights and takes position on the current challenges and possibilities that Higher Education faces in the integration of refugees. A vivid overview of ongoing initiatives and priority areas outlines a vision for a concerted and future oriented approach on the role of higher education in integration.

More than one million refugees arrived in Germany in 2015 – an enormous challenge for our country and society. But it’s also an opportunity, for experience it shows that those who risk the perils of escape are generally better informed, better educated and better networked. This has stirred hope that many of these refugees have a strong academic background. According to the latest estimates from the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), 66,000 to 99,000 are “highly qualified” and could meet the prerequisites for gaining admission to institutions of higher education or continuing their studies.

The academic integration of refugees, who are both qualified and interested in gaining higher education, is one of the central tasks of our universities. They have been preparing for this task over the past months and have already received tremendous support. The Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) has allocated 100 million euros from 2016 to 2019 to support higher-education refugee integration programmes. The DAAD has used this funding to launch a number of programmes. It is essential to provide refugees with information on what must surely seem a very foreign German higher education system and the opportunities it offers. To this end, the DAAD has started a new webpage corresponding information online with translations in languages which are most widely spoken by refugees and has broadly expanded its information hotline. In addition, German citizens are also in need of information. Therefore the International DAAD Academy (iDA) has staged a number of seminars since last year to address legal matters, intercultural issues or approaches for dealing with trauma.

Academic integration can be broken down into four phasesthe entrance phase, the preparatory phase, the study phase and the transitional phase into professional life. The first phase begins with the initial contact at a university where the refugees’ academic qualifications and language skills are assessed. The entrance phase also entails reviewing certificates, assessing academic aptitude and offering alternatives when documents and certificates are not available. For all of these steps, assistance is provided through examination and testing procedures, e.g. the TestAS or uni-assist, the fees for which the DAAD can reimburse. This phase, which is mainly diagnostic in character, paves the way for enrolment in a degree programme or preparatory courses if needed. Those who do not have university entrance qualification are referred to a foundation course or equivalent university programme. The Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) has increased funding to cover the cost of 2,400 additional places in such foundation courses. The universities themselves have received extra funding to prepare prospective students for their future degree programmes with subject-related and language-based preparatory courses (“Integra Programme” - Integrating Refugees in Higher Education Programmes). These courses may also prove necessary to those who have university entrance qualification, such as Syrians who graduated with honours from secondary school but were forced to interrupt their studies for a longer period of time. The preparatory phase lays the groundwork for a successful academic career. The BMBF has allocated five million euros to finance student projects and mentoring programmes, provide long-term support for the enormous and impressive commitment by German students, and if at all possible, reward such commitment with academic credit (“Welcome Programme” – Students Helping Refugees). Integration can only succeed if student refugees receive personal contact and advising services throughout their studies.

And what is the situation at the universities? Despite the great commitment on the part of German universities which have made much possible with remarkable flexibility, the enrolment numbers for most of them have only increased moderately. This could change by autumn of this year as plans are underway to accelerate the asylum process.  Another area of activity deserves a top place on the agenda: the career perspectives in the home countries. As important as it is to strongly integrate refugees into our university system, it is just as important to offer perspectives for young people in Syria and its neighbouring countries. There are already a number of programmes, financed by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation (BMZ), the Federal Foreign Office (DAFI Programme) and the EU, with which universities can finance measures on location, as well as scholarships for refugees, which create career opportunities at home.

The DAAD, in cooperation with its partners from British Council, Campus France and EP-Nuffic, has just launched a new programme – financed by the EU Regional Trust Fund in Response to the Syrian Crisis, the ‘Madad Fund’ – to provide Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt the opportunity to gain access to further and higher education. In addition to language courses and short-term study programmes, the project will award more than 300 full scholarships to student refugees in the region. A total of 12 million euros has been allocated for this purpose until 2019.

Four-phase model to integrate refugees at universities, the research sector and innovation system in Germany

The complete version of this article appeared in the February edition of the “Deutsche Universitätszeitung”(February 2016).