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In recent years, the European Union’s governance structures have been challenged to the crisis point by the arrival of asylum seekers across the continent. Higher education institutions have similarly been called to find opportunities for students who, in many cases, have had study interrupted by conflict for years. In 2016, Germany was the largest European recipient of new asylum applications, with the highest number originating from Syrian nationals. While the response of the German tertiary sector to the refugee crisis cannot be characterized as comprehensive, there have been efforts by some states and institutions. This piece seeks to survey the landscape, pointing towards the need for a more centrally organized, cohesive response.

Perhaps the most visible response to the refugee crisis in Germany’s education sector has been DAAD’s Leadership for Syria Scholarship Program that offered 100 scholarships for tertiary study in Germany in 2014, funded by the Federal Foreign Office.  By November 2015, additional awards had been supported by the states of Nordrhein-Westfalen and Baden-Württemberg, with over 5,000 applications received for the program’s 221 total scholarships. In addition, the German government is the lead sponsor of the UNHCR’s Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative Fund  (known as DAFI), a scholarship program that offered 1,700 scholarships for Syrian students in exile to study in another Middle Eastern country during 2016-17. 

Asylum seekers in Germany are at a significant disadvantage when attempting to enter university through normal procedures. In addition to the required academic qualification, degree-seeking international students must demonstrate financial means as well as German language proficiency to enroll in most academic programs. Once a student has been accepted, the critical question of funding remains. While public German universities do not typically charge tuition, there are fees associated with study, costs German students often cover with “BAföG” (BundesAusbildungsförderungsGesetz) – government-backed funding providing up to 720 Euro per month. However, a refugee may only apply for BAföG 15 months after receiving asylum. Given that financial aid is dependent on the timely processing of an asylum application –widely recognized as inefficient—barriers to higher education entry can persist for two years or more. For many, this wait is an enforced period of inactivity without access to study or work opportunities.

To bridge this gap, several German universities have responded by offering on-site validation of academic credentials without original documents, a key service for prospective students who have fled conflict areas on short notice with few personal possessions. In Niedersachsen, open admission degree programs at the state’s nine universities are open to asylum seekers and refugee students who successfully complete the appropriate exam at a preparatory college and provide proof of German proficiency. Many universities also offer enrollment without cost in courses with “guest” status, particularly targeted towards asylum seekers waiting for their application to be processed. Leuphana Universität Lüneburg offers a Refugee Bridging Program that permits asylum seekers to take classes and sit for exams, typically earning academic credit, with participation reflected in a certificate that may be useful in qualifying for future academic study. 

Several online education initiatives also facilitate access to academia. Fern Universität has opened all online courses to qualified refugees, also offering extensive language training and making plans to give scholarships to cover ancillary fees. Kiron University offers refugees a two-year online program in partnership with US-based MOOC providers including EdX and Coursera with the expectation that students will subsequently complete their studies at a host institution. Lastly, some individual universities also offer non-university training online. Leuphana Digital School, associated with Leuphana Universität Lüneburg, recently offered a free, 12-week course supported by the German Federal Employment Agency specifically for refugees as a pilot project. The course supports practical and language learning, facilitating participant readiness to enter a formal German degree program.

Several groups also offer smartphone applications to various refugee populations. The German state government of Nordrhein-Westfalen, for example, has produced “Germany Says Welcome”, which offers information on the asylum application process, university study, and the German political system. The German Ministry for Migration and Refugees has also launched an app, aptly titled “Ankommen” (or “arrival”). The app offers basic German language instruction (developed by the Goethe Institute) and provides information about the asylum application process as well as education and training. The app is available in English, Arabic, French, German and Persian.

It seems clear that continuing, large-scale migration to Germany has created multiple and evolving challenges for educational institutions. Indeed, some universities now highlight their emerging response to the refugee crisis; Universität Konstanz’s website notes that together with the University of Applied Sciences Konstanz, it is coordinating a new three-phase model of support for refugees and is awaiting funding from the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Science, Research, and Arts. This statement encapsulates some of the challenges inherent in Germany’s contemporary educational ecosystem: ambitious institutional plans often require the support of state and federal authorities that may or may not be developing goals and funding schemes aligned with those initiatives. During any period of synchronization, asylum seekers and refugees are disadvantaged by unrealized, unexecuted, and incomplete policy interventions.  The German Federal government has been called on to simplify the process of refugee access to higher education as quickly as possible, not only in support of equitable access, but also to build capacity for a future Syrian state. 


Lisa Unangst is a graduate student and research assistant at the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College where her research focuses on immigrant  and refugee access to higher education in Germany.

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