Orientation? Yes. But does integration follow?

How German universities react to refugees (and how academics organize themselves).

Lots of people who fled to Germany had to quit their studies or their schooling to then experience that it is not easy or even impossible to resume studies in Germany. Admission criteria distinguish from course to course and from university to university and some of them are difficult to fulfill even for Germans. An additional cradle for the non-natives is the language barrier: Most universities demand a level of language which is very close to native speakers. One needs to be capable of advanced language skills to write, to debate and to read on an academic level. English bachelor degree courses are still rare at the big universities (e.g. there is no such course at Hamburg University). The only solution is to practice until your German is good enough for studying in German. But more obstacles like the identification and the evaluation of previous course achievements are still to come, not to forget the financial aspect of studies.

Asylum seekers and accepted refugees are basically not distracted from applying for a place at university because the application is independent of the residence title. But there is a contingent for non-EU citizens at every university which determines if there is a chance to get in.

Universities recognised their key role for the integration of escaped people. According to a survey, 72% of the universities created offers for refugee students. Most of these offers contain guidance and orientation at the university, contact to fellow students or language courses. At Hamburg University the program #uhhilft was launched. It aims to assist escaped students throughout their arrival at the university by offering German language courses, guided campus tours, information events and the permission to attend courses which you are not listed in (usually in Germany you need to be registered for any course you want to attend but in this special case you don’t).

Our author Ahmad takes part in this program. He says:

 “I find this program was the most effective way for me to know about how shall I live here and know about the German society. First, this program allows me to reach to the university and have some basic ideas about the system of education in Germany. Second, I had the chance to attend German course regardless of my status of the asylum issue in Germany, and that helps me because it takes a while for me to have the normal paper to attend German course. Third, I meet a lot of nice people in this program and this is important for me because somehow they motivate me to learn quicker. And sure, when I meet new nice people I will not think negatively about how people label me under any label, whatsoever this label was.”

#uhhilft contains amongst other things a „buddy-program” where one refugee and one student from Hamburg University build a team to get to know each other closer. The NDR radio station reports about Ahmad and his “Buddy” Jutta.

It is unclear to what extent universities are willing to adjust their demands to the new target group or if the support throughout the application process is all they care for. This preparation phase can take a very long time, up to years. Serious changes need to include structural changes as well. The current situation could be the trigger for changes that are needed anyway: The application process is very complex, maybe too complex, isn’t it? Are the BAföG regulations fair? Not to forget English bachelor degree courses, aren’t they inevitable anyway? Such degree courses would be profitable not only for refugee students but for all students.

The traditional universities didn’t make the move towards these questions yet. Other initiatives are far ahead of them. At the Kiron University in Berlin, students can study without administrative boudaries in an online setting. But the most important are asylum seeker’s self organized initiatives of academics, who want to learn from each other, share their knowledge and carry it into the public. The Silent University aims “to challenge the idea of silence as a passive state, and explore its powerful potential through performance, writing, and group reflection. These explorations attempt to make apparent the systemic failure and the loss of skills and knowledge experienced through the silencing process of people seeking asylum”.

Text: Anna // Comment: Ahmad // Radioreport: Daniela (NDR) // Translation: Eike