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The potential and reality of new refugees entering German higher education: The case of Berlin institutions

Wed, March 28, 5:00 to 6:30pm, Museo de Arte Popular, Floor: Ground Floor, Auditorium


The education sector is a critical player in refugee resettlement and can offer a primary conduit back into society as a powerful antidote to the trauma of forced migration (Crea, 2016; Dryden-Peterson, 2016). Although the opportunities for refugees to return to education are fraught with extraordinary challenges (Crea, 2016; Joyce, Earnest, de Mori, & Silvagni, 2010; Stevenson & Willott, 2007; Zeus, 2011), refugee students are often among the most resilient and ambitious learners when given new opportunities (Mangan & Winter, 2017; Yogendra et al., 2010). According to the world’s media, since 2015 Europe has been experiencing a “refugee crisis.” At the end of 2016 more than 1.3 million refugees had crossed into the European Union, fleeing unrest in the Middle East and North Africa; 890,000 entered Germany in 2015. The speed of the refugee influx caught policy makers and administrators at the federal, state, and municipal levels and German civil society, including educational institutions, by surprise and scrambling to respond. Increasingly designated as a “land of migration,” since World War II Germany has become an attractive destination for skilled migration, refugees and international students. While the influx of migrants may aid the country’s future economic prospects and stem a declining birthrate, it has set off a backlash movement and raised challenging questions about inequality and access for both migrants and Germans alike.
This paper critically examines the efforts of universities in Berlin that addressed the “refugee crisis” in 2015-16, with additional data collected from interviews with higher education experts at ministries, foundations, and institutes in Berlin and Bonn. The discussion is framed by three main arguments. 1) The magnitude of the ‘refugee crisis’ was overblown by the media in light of previous migration streams into Germany; 2) the number of refugees entering German higher education will be small in relation to overall existing enrollment numbers and be more a trickle than a flood; 3) yet the response by the government, federal states, education agencies, civil society, and many universities to develop and maintain pathways for refugee students has been remarkably generous and innovative. The German Academic Exchange Service in particular has cooperated with universities and funded $100 million Euros for new initiatives over the next years to facilitate refugee student integration. Through the so-called “third mission” going beyond teaching and research, faculty, staff and students have supported or increased already existing services to provide solidarity and support. Germany’s response to the refugee situation has demonstrated a sense of obligation to understanding and helping those experiencing political and social upheaval at a time when globalization is intensifying the competing impulses of integration and fragmentation (Yemini, 2015). The disconnect between refugee expectations and the reality of implementation will need to be resolved if Germany is to succeed in integrating refugees into its higher education system.


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