Cooperation, innovation and influence in the refugee crisis

Cooperation, innovation and influence in the refugee crisis

After looking at the bigger picture of the unfolding refugee crisis, learning about the values and role of higher education, and hearing from affected students and scholars on Thursday, the EAIE Spotlight Seminar continued the conversation into its second day. Several innovative practices were presented and challenging questions asked with a view towards continuing the discussion in the near future and learning for the distant future. Participants actively engaged in sharing experiences and thoughts, resulting in a strong message for the EAIE Annual Conference in Liverpool in September 2016.

Multiple forms of identity

Identity and identification are crucial pieces of the refugee crisis puzzle. Refugees in higher education are, as well as refugees, also students, scholars, civil engineers, political scientists, men and women. Seeing refugees as part of the higher education community in their student and scholar identities can help to design more fitting policies that allow for refugees to escape labeling and facilitate their integration into the higher education system and society at large. The question of identity also entails shifting our own way of thinking and seeing ‘us as them’ – rather than us and them. This paradigm shift is not only a philosophical exercise, but a mindset that can be implemented in practice.

Innovative practices

One of these practices was TUBerlin’s admissions approach, which views refugee students as guest students. For students with missing documentation, support staff works in close cooperation with faculty in assessing the interest and ability of refugee students to attend classes. Although not yet admitted as regular students, this practice allows for refugee students to gain an understanding of the German higher education system, meet like-minded peers and develop a network. The aim is to eventually allow for as many of these students as possible to be admitted as regular students. Throughout the Seminar, several similarly novel solutions were presented. In addition to TUBerlin’s approach, participants found the NOKUT’s qualification passport for refugees, the train the Syrian teachers project in Leiden, and Kiron Open Higher Education offering blended learning for refugees the most innovative ones.

Pushing the policymakers

Many Seminar participants expressed a frustration about the time-consuming and at times unaccommodating stance of policymakers whose support is needed to implement and scale up practices. Internationalisation professionals are therefore increasingly required to see their role not only as practitioners shaping accepted policies, but also as advocates for these policies. To be successful, they need to push policymakers into making decisions that allow for a holistic approach to integration into higher education. In the meantime, professionals should – within the framework they have available – seek to enable for refugees to integrate both to show policymakers that success is possible and to give hope to refugee students and scholars.

Share and cooperate

A challenge facing many policymakers is the lack of comparative data that would allow for knowledge-based decision making.  Collecting and sharing data such as in the EUA’s Refugees Welcome Map is therefore essential. Sharing data, successes and failures is important for policymakers, but equally so for practitioners. Since the refugee crisis is new territory for many higher education institutions, they take to learning from each other. Initiatives that gather professionals and policymakers alike are essential. Developments that transcend borders, such as the refugee crisis at hand, require institutions to not only share lessons learned but, increasingly, also to cooperate with each other on both a national and European level. A knowledge-based overarching approach embedded in wider society that actively includes refugees themselves is needed, as a lack of action will only lead to a worsening of this crisis. We must remember that learning about the current crisis is also learning for tomorrow because not only are many refugees are here to stay, the higher education community should be better prepared for future crises.


The EAIE will continue addressing the refugee crisis through a special ‘Refugees in focus’ track at its Annual Conference in Liverpool – covering topics such as recognition and campus integration of refugees and curricular solutions. The challenges and open questions will continue to be discussed with new voices in Liverpool. Professionals were asked to go home to their respective institutions to push their superiors and cooperate with their partners – both in the higher education community and their local societies. Fitting the Liverpool Conference theme ‘Imagine’, in the powerful words of Friday Morning Plenary keynote speaker Predrag Tapavicki, we should all seek to “imagine that the refugee of today will be our future boss”.