Universities launch drive to oppose rising xenophobia

The member universities of the German Rectors’ Conference, or HRK, have launched a national initiative to oppose xenophobia in Germany, against a backdrop of the refugee crisis and a steeply rising number of incidents of verbal and physical racial attacks in recent months.

At their General Meeting in Kiel on 10 November, HRK President Professor Horst Hippler appealed to HRK members to support the campaign and defend the basic university values of openness, tolerance and diversity.

Despite the fact that university towns and cities are affected by the issue to varying degrees, the universities agreed to show solidarity against xenophobia and racism and use the initiative to highlight this attitude under a common logo, “Universities for openness, tolerance and against xenophobia”.

In a statement on its website, HRK said: “Universities are open-minded places. Diverse opinions and international exchange constitute the foundations of their research and teaching activities. In light of the increasing xenophobic tendencies that can be seen at the moment, universities are actively advocating this plurality of opinions and exchange.”

The HRK said universities as “future workshops of the world” are transnational in and of themselves. “A university can only be sustainable if it acts and thinks at international level.”

Germany has been a welcoming and sought-after destination for thousands of refugees making their way across Turkey and the Balkans into the European Union, mostly from Syria, but also from Afghanistan and other countries, but it is struggling with the influx and expects at least 800,000 asylum applications by the end of this year.

While there have been scenes of local people lining stations and offering food and applause to refugees arriving in the country, the influx is causing a strain on resources and fears among some sections of the population, and there have also been right-wing protests and a rising number of racial attacks.

By October, according to Reuters, 576 crimes involving refugee housing had been reported this year, compared with 198 for the whole of last year. The incidents this year included 46 actual or attempted arson attacks, up from six last year.

Previously Professor Hippler has warned that xenophobic verbal and physical attacks “affect humanity and have a negative impact on science and society”.

EUA welcomes the initiative

At a meeting of the European University Association, or EUA, in October he said: “We will do all we can to stand up to xenophobic tendencies in Germany and Europe. Universities promote and thrive on open-mindedness and internationality. Traditionally, they are places of enlightened thinking where open exchange, a plurality of opinions and tolerance prevail."

The German higher education system has close ties with other national higher education systems. The HRK has clearly stated in its international strategy that an open and international campus and the international mobility of teachers and students therefore provide the essential foundations for high-quality teaching, learning and research.

The EUA has fully welcomed the HRK’s initiative.

“Openness, tolerance and inclusiveness are fundamental university values, and diversity of opinion and the free exchange of ideas are the basis of all academic teaching and research,” the EUA said in a statement for the media.

The EUA said European universities have a long tradition of welcoming international students, staff and researchers as well as threatened scholars from different parts of the world. Today, Europe faces major challenges with political, economic and societal implications in the form of massive inward migration and a weakening of European solidarity.

The EUA therefore called on universities and their communities to oppose any form of racism, discrimination and national stereotyping, unreservedly commit to an open society, and encourage other societal actors to do the same.

EUA President Rolf Tarrach said: “Europe's universities are the main source, transmitter and repository of knowledge on our continent and this knowledge leaves no room for xenophobia and hate.

“Instead it empowers us to support any efforts that aim to integrate those who are forced to leave their countries by sharing with them our democratic values, rights and responsibilities.”

Seeking government support

For months, German higher education institutions have been actively working for the integration of the large number of refugees entering the country, according to HRK, but is seeking financial support from the government to continue the work they are doing.

“Higher education institutions require demand-driven assistance to support refugees who are potential students, staff and researchers," Hippler said.

It is critical to provide early careers advice, language learning and specific course preparation to enable refugees to integrate and begin their studies. HRK estimates that the language learning element and preparatory courses would cost around €4,000 (US$4,300) per person per year.

To date, German higher education institutions have financed most measures from their own tight budgets. Staff members are choosing to work overtime and a lot of people – including students – are working as volunteers.

“Higher education institutions are offering trial courses, waiving fees for guest students, arranging for people to accompany refugees when they attend meetings with the authorities and helping them to find accommodation,” the HRK says.