Cooperation, innovation and influence in the refugee crisis

Cooperation, innovation and influence in the refugee crisis

The EAIE Spotlight Seminar, ‘Integrating refugees in higher education: solutions for a generation on the run’, which took place in Amsterdam in June 2016, surveyed the bigger picture of the unfolding refugee crisis, with input from affected students and scholars and discussion of the role of values and higher education in mitigating the crisis. Several innovative practices were presented and challenging questions were asked with a view towards continuing the discussion in the near future and learning for the distant future. Indeed, the conversation is ongoing, as marked by the new upcoming Spotlight Seminar, 'From refugees to international students', being held in Berlin in November 2019.

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.