Experiences with refugee students in Germany

Experiences with refugee students in Germany

This week on the EAIE blog, we have been exploring the pressing issue of the situation of refugees in Europe. Having looked at Hungary, we now turn our attention to Germany, which has been very central to the discussions on this subject.  Today we present two institutional approaches to help incorporate this population into the country’s higher education system. Stay tuned for two more thought-provoking blog posts on how higher education in Europe is handling this crisis.

As Germany continues to accept large numbers of refugees into the country, its higher education institutions are developing creative ways to enroll refugees who may not have transcripts but have a willingness to learn. Two best practices from German institutions are described in this blog post.

IN-Touch: Facing the Refugee Crisis at the University of Bremen

In April 2014, the University of Bremen opened its doors to refugees with an academic background. This initiative was prompted by the request from a refugee hostel that identified a rising number of refugees who either held a university degree or had to interrupt their studies. When refugees wait for a decision on their asylum application, they have a lot of time on their hands. In the refugee hostels, they lack space for quiet and solitude; they do not necessarily have an internet connection or reasonable resources. This initiative addresses all of these challenges by offering a bridge to education.  IN-Touch also provides the chance to regain self-confidence and hope after experiencing traumatising events and receiving charity.

How does it work?

The University of Bremen contacts refugee hostels and other organisations involved in refugee matters to let them know about the IN-Touch opportunity. The refugees can then register at the University’s International Office in person. During the registration process individual educational background is discussed, as well as what the university can offer. Official educational documents are not necessary for registration. For regular participation in lectures and other academic accomplishments, a certificate is awarded at the end of term. The participants are not officially enrolled but guests at the University. They get a visitor card, library and network access for each term. And – if they wish – contact with an enrolled student (a ‘student partner’) to help them through the obstacles new students face at a university. The ‘student partners’ can also earn points towards an ‘Intercultural Certificate’ for their voluntary support.


Using IN-Touch as a social tool of early intervention comes with several difficulties when working with a group of people who are living in an unsettled situation. A lot of participants do not possess a computer, e-mail account or a stable postal address. That makes communication a challenge from the start. Explaining how a German university works and how to navigate through it can be challenging with the cultural gap. Falling back to an orally-dominated way of working in the midst of a highly complex and technology-driven way of working is challenging. We had to cover the needs of participants with diverse academic backgrounds and connect them with a university with thousands of events. Furthermore, we had to handle voluntary helpers, public transportation issues and the expectations of the participants. There is also the challenge of thinking about the future of the participants after this programme, especially for those who wish to pursue a university degree. We need to offer a reliable system that equips them with fair admission, even if educational documents are lost, with language courses leading to university level and an understanding that we allow and want them to contribute to our society in the future.

Refugees at the Deggendorf Institute of Technology (Technische Hochschule Deggendorf)

Due to the large number of refugees entering Germany every day, education institutions are being asked to dedicate themselves to the integration and support of refugees. Currently, the International Office is in charge of the coordination of refugees at the Deggendorf Institute of Technology (DIT).

Last year, a half-German-half-Syrian formally enrolled DIT student asked if his Syrian cousins could study and learn German at DIT. As they didn’t have the necessary German level to apply as regular students, we agreed to accept them as exchange students for one year. They were given student visas.

The experience gained through this situation is helping us now, as there are many more interested refugees contacting us each week. The biggest issue that refugees have is attaining their high school or university transcripts. If they come from a country struggling with a civil war, often they don’t have the possibility to take their transcripts with them or it takes a very long time to receive them.

How does it work?

The best way we have found to deal with this issue is to accept them as exchange students, even if they are not enrolled in any other university. This way, they have the possibility to take German classes, subjects in any course they are interested in and also seminars, eg intercultural seminars. Luckily, we offer an Engineering programme for exchange students in which all Engineering faculties offer classes in English as well as a study course in International Management that is also instructed in English. These programmes are open to the refugees. They can study and learn German even though they might not have the necessary documents to be degree-seeking students. Later, they can receive transcripts including all the courses in which they took exams, without having a degree. If they do apply for a regular study course with us, there is the possibility that those courses they took as an exchange student will be acknowledged and applied to their degree at DIT.

There are also requirements that the refugee students need to fulfil. Although we do not require the translated and officially confirmed transcripts, we want to make sure that the students have an academic background and/or the aim to pursue a degree.  Therefore, we have a personal meeting with them, where they can also invite a close confidant of theirs to attend (eg a caretaker – mostly Germans – who are active on behalf of the refugee to facilitate their integration into society).

Moreover, it is a big advantage if the students already speak some English or German. The DIT is not able to teach the Latin alphabet, although there are publicly offered German courses from a non-profit institution that do so. We want to assure the sustainability of our education, thus there is also the condition that refugee students must be able to commit to enrolling for a minimum of one semester. The maximum amount of time that one can be enrolled as an exchange student is one year. This solution has been a good experience for all parties involved. In the future, we will consider offering an admission test rather than requiring transcripts.

Jens is Advisor and Counsellor at University of Bremen’s International Office, and Sabrina is Advisor and Counsellor at Technische Hochschule Deggendorf’s International Office, Germany.