Austrian Universities and the Refugee Crisis
Universities have embraced the responsibility to respond to the refugee crisis swiftly and seriously while the government has been criticized for reacting slowly and inadequately.
Austria is one of the transit countries for refugees on their way to Germany. It faces great infrastructure and organisational difficulties to deal with the masses of people crossing the border but also with those who decide to stay. Approximately 90.000 applications for asylum have been submitted in 2015 in contrast to 28.064 applications in 2014. The crisis has caused a strengthening of the right wing party but also elicited a great deal of humanitarian support from the public.
In contrast to the vast media coverage on the difficulties of the refugee crisis, support from the higher education community has been mostly overlooked. The Austrian University Conference (uniko), representing all 21 public universities started a program of support for refugees called MORE, launched in September 2015 with 16 participating universities. At the end of November 2015, the MORE website listed 19 universities engaged in the pilot phase. Apart from humanitarian motivations, uniko acknowledges that Syrian refugees are well educated and that their skills should be recognized.
MORE support includes a less bureaucratic procedure for admission as a non-degree student. International candidates normally need a recognised secondary qualification equal to a Matura (in Austria) or Abitur (in Germany) and a proof of German language skills. Asylum seekers have to provide proof of admission in a relevant HEI program in their home country. Refugees often do not have these documents; hence, MORE offers a streamlined enrolment procedure although not to degree-granting programs. Instead it offers (mostly specially designed) courses with an examination and a transcript at the end of the semester or a certificate of attendance if no exams are included.
The initiative also includes a waiver of the tuition and membership fees for the Austrian student union, as well as access to the university libraries. Refugees, asylum seekers and persons granted asylum are granted the same legal rights as Austrian citizens so they are exempted from tuition fees anyway. But additionally the student union fee of 18.50 Euro per term is waived in the MORE initiative.
Moreover, MORE covers German language and integration courses. Mentoring programs are organised to provide “student buddies” to help with everyday life and, where possible, support for travel and course material expenses are provided. The initiative offers solid orientation to the academic world. Not all institutions, however, clearly communicate what kinds of support they are offering to the MORE program and the variations are considerable. For example, three institutions did not mention their involvement in the program at all. However, many other forms of support (e.g. donations, sports courses, medical support etc.) are offered at various institutions.
The participating universities offer between 15 and 100 places in courses to students who qualify for the MORE program. The University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna has made 15 to 20 places available while the Technical University (TU) Vienna offers various places in different areas summing up to more than 115 places. The University of Vienna indicates that approximately 100 asylum seekers and refugees have registered, but more accurate numbers are unavailable.
Most private universities in Austria, primarily specialised on health and life sciences or music, do not offer support with some exceptions—the Sigmund Freud Private University offers psychological support and the Webster University collects donations (of goods) and conducted a ‘baking for charity’.
Austria also has 21 universities of applied sciences (Fachhochschulen, short FH). These institutes have a restricted number of places and have a limited range of programs (in contrast to universities). They do offer 46 programs in English that could be attractive to refugees. Kurt Koleznik, the secretary general of the Austrian Conference of Universities of Applied Sciences (UAS), sees these institutions offering accommodation in student dormitories for refugees, German courses and donations, but no MORE-like program is planned.
Individual universities of applied sciences were advised by the Ministry of Sciences to admit refugees by alternative means other than the presentation of the usual required documents. For example, the FH Oberoesterreich conducts interviews to decide if a refugee qualifies. Universities of Applied Science that conduct entrance exams may, in some cases, consider exams to be sufficient for admission if additional documentation cannot be provided. Tuition fees have been waived by only three universities of applied sciences (FH Technikum, FH Salzburg and FH Kaernten). So far only very few refugees are enrolled at these universities.
It seems that the universities have embraced the responsibility to respond to the refugee crisis swiftly and seriously while the government has been criticised for reacting slowly and inadequately. The involvement of universities should be appreciated and, hopefully, many refugees have already benefited from their efforts. Also in comparison to other European countries, the Austrian University Conference has reacted quickly. It represents a remarkable coordinated support across almost all public universities in Austria.
However, it is not clear in how far refugees can benefit from the MORE initiative while they are enrolled as non-degree students, often in specially designed courses. The MORE program does not guarantee academic recognition or credit transfer for these programs but the resulting documentation may help refugees to qualify for future studies. This is an important first step but it is unclear what will happen next.
Madelaine Leitsberger is a PhD student at the Centre for Animal Ethics at the University of Winchester (England) and interested in the burning questions of higher education.
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