The Society for Research into Higher Education

A work in progress: support for refugees on their way to German higher education

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by Jana Berg

Before 2015 it can be assumed that (some) refugees had already been studying in Germany, but they were generally not addressed by specific offers. This changed after 2015, when the number of asylum applications peaked in Germany. Supported by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and additional programs at state (Bundesländer) level, numerous HEI and preparatory colleges started programs to assist prospective refugee students on their way to higher education. I argue for understanding refugees as a specific group of international students, describe the (ongoing) institutionalisation of support for refugees on German HEI and close with some remarks on ongoing and further offers and research.

This blog is based on qualitative expert interviews with first contacts for refugees and heads of international offices at 5 German HEIs. The sample includes 10 interview partners from 3 universities and 2 universities of applied sciences from 4 German states. Sampling criteria were existing support for refugees and diverse mission statements; one university of excellence was included. The interviews were conducted between August 2017 and July 2018.

Refugees are generally treated as (non-EU) international students by German HEIs. They can apply in the usual way as long as they fulfil the entrance criteria (usually German on a C1-level and a university entrance qualification), but have recently received specific additional support. This leads to the question: How do the situations of international students with and without experiences of forced migration[1] differ?[2]

Refugees have to deal with a number of challenges entering higher education. Some of them are similar to those all international students face: language proficiency, finances and social isolation are typical challenges for many international students. The specific situation of refugees amplifies or alters those challenges: while most international students prepare in their home country, many refugees only started to learn German after arriving in Germany. Also, while international students have to prove owning a certain amount of money in order to obtain a visa, refugees often depend on public support. Unlike other international students, refugees are eligible for public student loans (‘BAföG’).

Due to the circumstances of their migration, refugees also face a number of additional challenges. The time needed to arrive in Germany and obtain the necessary language proficiency (Schröder 2018) often leads to gaps in their educational biography. Further, missing documents, psychological distress and their inclusion in the German Asylum Regime can hinder them on their way to German higher education. One of the central challenges seems to be a lack of available and valid information on admission procedures and studying in Germany. Generally, it can be said that (prospective) refugee students prepare and partly study under different circumstances than (prospective) international students in Germany and can therefore be seen as a specific group of international students (Berg 2018).

The numbers of (anticipated) requests of (prospective) refugee students that needed counselling and would probably need support to fulfil access criteria for HEI increased along with public interest. In the beginning, this often meant that HEI student counsellors and members of international offices had to work extra hours to manage all requests. Additionally, many offers for refugees were started by voluntary initiatives of students as well as members of staff. Financial and personnel resources became a challenge. After federal and partly also state-level funding became available, most HEIs implemented part time positions for the counselling of refugees and the management of the newly started programs for refugees.

At most German HEIs no specific support was offered for refugees before 2016. Experience, information, guidelines and best practice examples were therefore in short supply. Initially, this led to concern about the legal scope of action and a need for orientation, stated in all interviews conducted in 2017. While first contacts often had to build experience and gather knowledge on the specific situation of refugees, programs were already established on a learning-by-doing-basis.

The new offers generally are path-dependent. They often build on or extend previously existing structures for international students. Generally, the sampled HEIs offer counselling for refugees, propaedeutic and language classes, as well as programs to support social integration and access to infrastructure like WiFi and libraries. In 2016, 6806 refugees, mostly from Syria, took part in academic and/or language classes offered within the federally funded “Integra” program (Fourier et al, 2017). HEI-specific offers include offers for traumatized students, participation in online courses and strong collaborations with local businesses that offer internships and partly also funding for refugees. When public interest and news coverage decreased, some HEIs struggled with decreasing voluntary engagement among their students. Some reacted by offering ECTS points for ‘intercultural communication’. Further, some established paid student positions to support and counsel refugees in addition to the first contacts.

Refugees face a mixture of challenges but are throughout the interviews also described as a highly motivated new group of students that holds great potential for German HEI. Due to their specific situation, they should be offered specific support on their way to and through higher education. While only some of the challenges refugees face can be met by HEIs themselves, integrating them into higher education should be supported by several other actors (eg jobcentres, the Federal Ministry for Migration and Refugees etc). Considering refugees a global phenomenon with very different national reactions, the well-funded structural support of access to higher education makes Germany an example of global interest.

There were at first insecurities connected with the realisation of support for refugees at German HEIs. Now many programs seem well established, and new topics for study are emerging. Some argue for using the experiences gained with the first cohort to support other groups, and also to extend support from study-preparations to study-support. The first period of Integra funding ends in 2019. Further Integra funding will be provided, but insecurities about whether and to what extent the funding of their specific HEI will continue make it hard for most HEI members to predict the future of their support programs for refugees.

Along with social and institutional interest, academic interest in this topic has grown during the last years. Even a year ago there were few studies on higher education for refugees (for a comprehensive literature review see Berg et al, 2018), but the field is quickly growing.  Practically and academically the (investigation of the) inclusion of refugees into higher education can be seen as a work in progress.

[1] Henceforth, I refer to international students with a student visa as ‘international students’.

[2] This description is solely based on the perspective of HEI members. For a comparison of the perspectives of experts and prospective refugee students on aspirations and challenges see Grüttner et al. 2018.

Jana Berg is a researcher at the German Centre for Higher Education Research and Science Studies (DZHW), which is investigating the living and learning conditions of refugees and asylum seekers on their way to German higher education ( She is working on her dissertation on organisational support for and perspectives on refugees.

Jana Berg gave a paper at the SRHE Newer Researchers Conference 2018 and won the award for Best Poster.


[1] Henceforth, I refer to international students with a student visa as ‘international students’.

[2] This description is solely based on the perspective of HEI members. For a comparison of the perspectives of experts and prospective refugee students on aspirations and challenges see Grüttner et al. 2018.


Berg, J (2018) ‘A New Aspect of Internationalisation? Specific Challenges and Support Structures for Refugees on Their Way to German Higher Education’ in Curaj, A, Deca, L and Pricopie, R (eds) European Higher Education Area: The Impact of Past and Future Policies Cham: Springer, pp. 219-235.

Berg, J, Grüttner, M and Schröder, S (2018) ‚Zwischen Befähigung und Stigmatisierung? Die Situation von Geflüchteten beim Hochschulzugang und im Studium. Ein internationaler Forschungsüberblick.‘ Zeitschrift für Flüchtlingsforschung, Z’Flucht 2(1): 57-90

Fourier, K, Kracht, J, Latsch, K, Heublein, U.and Schneider, C (2017) Integration von Flüchtlingen an deutschen Hochschulen. Erkenntnisse aus den Hochschulprogrammen für Flüchtlinge. Bonn/ Hannover: DAAD/ DZHW

Grüttner, M, Schröder, S, Berg, J and Otto, C (2018) ‘Refugees on Their Way to German Higher Education: A Capabilities and Engagements Perspective on Aspirations, Challenges and Support’ Global Education Review, 5(4): 115-135

Schröder, S. (2018) The Rocky Road of Refugees to German Universities. Blog series “Skills and Migration” of the “National Center of Competence in Research – The Migration-Mobility-Nexus (nccr – on the move)”. Online (30.11.2018)

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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