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Welcoming Refugees Into Universities

28 September 2018

Giovanna FILIPPINI, Head of the International Relations Division, University of Bologna (Chair)
Mathieu CRETTENAND, Senior advisor to the Rectorate, University of Geneva
Dana SAMSON, Pro-Rector for International Affairs, University of Louvain

Universities across Europe have a long tradition of hosting refugee students and scholars. However, the refugee crisis of 2015 called upon more innovative initiatives to preserve access to higher education for those who had to abandon their studies to flee their country.

Amongst these initiatives, three comprehensive university preparatory programmes were launched within the Coimbra Group and led to a comparative analysis that was presented at the 2018 EAIE conference in Geneva last September: Unibo4refugees at the University of Bologna; Academic Horizon at the University of Geneva; and Access2University at the University of Louvain. All three programmes share the same goals to help asylum seekers and refugee students access universities, to help them integrate within university communities and to give them the best chances to succeed in their studies. The programmes all incorporate a combination of academic support, language courses, social integration activities and administrative support for the admissions process. In all three cases, a majority of students (65 to 80%) completed the programme. For 2018-19, these programmes now host between 30 and 60 students per university.

After three years of experience, we reflected on the facilitating factors that led to the success of these programmes. Undoubtedly, these included:

  • Support at the highest level of university governance to secure the recognition of staff involvement (in all three cases, the programmes fall directly under the leadership of the Rector);
  • Clear identification of coordinating staff members to ensure efficient communication;
  • A holistic approach that tackles the various obstacles faced by refugee students, including psychological or health issues and practical matters such as housing;
  • Close collaboration with local stakeholders (including student associations as well as regional educational, professional and associative organisations), which can speed up the orientation and support given to refugee students and can have transformative effects on the perception of refugees in local communities.

However, we also faced common challenges, the largest being the orientation of refugees towards adapted higher education programmes. Beyond the recognition of previous learning and professional experience (for which several tools are now available), there is a specific need to properly match the refugees’ profile with existing programmes in the host country. Prerequisites are not necessarily the same across countries and refugees are usually not aware of the range of alternative studies available to them. Moreover, there are noticeable differences in academic and learning cultures across countries which require special coaching for learning methods specific to the host country.

While discussing our experiences, it was very clear that at the heart of all three programmes there is a strong social and human dimension. Students are given the space to progress at their personal rhythm, to share their experience and to build a whole new life project. Staff members also get to collaborate between them often to a level they never did before. These programmes are thus truly transformative experiences for all involved.