More funding for refugee students in NRW

As support for German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s immigration policy plummets, the state government of North Rhine-Westphalia, or NRW, has announced extra funding for the integration of refugees in higher education.

NRWege ins Studium (how to start studying in NRW) is to assist institutions in taking up refugee students and refugees interested in studying. Measures to receive support include developing preparatory and back-up courses for refugee students and running language training for refugees considering studying.

The NRW government is providing up to €30 million (US$33.8 million) a year for the new initiative, whose projects start next year. Institutions can apply for funding via the German Academic Exchange Service or DAAD, which is responsible for implementing the scheme.

“Swift integration of people seeking refuge in NRW is a top priority for the state government,” says NRW Higher Education Minister Svenja Schulze.

The course and career guidance services also play a major role in the initiative. Unlike other international students, refugees have usually had little opportunity to familiarise themselves with the German higher education system beforehand. With the additional government funding, universities can now recruit new staff to advise prospective students and thus take the strain off the regular student advisory services.

“Our programmes to integrate refugees have met with considerable interest among the universities,” says DAAD president Margret Wintermantel. “I look forward to backing the great effort they are making with further programmes to support talented young people.”

NRW has the largest population among Germany’s federal states. Last year, it accommodated more than 230,000 refugees, and a further 65,000 had come by July 2016.

Contrast in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern

In contrast, Chancellor Merkel’s home state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania or Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is the country’s most thinly populated state, and a mere 5,400 out of the 238,424 refugees arriving in Germany between January and July 2016 went there.

Still, in the state government elections on 4 September, the far-right anti-refugee Alternative für Deutschland, or AfD, party got more votes than the conservative Christian Democratic Union, which forms the current government as a junior partner together with the Social Democrats. NRW, presently with a Social Democrat/Green coalition, goes to the polls next year.

While the ruling coalition in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern could still remain in power, this is the first time that the AfD has overtaken the Christian Democrats in a state government election – even though it was running in the state for the first time.

Politicians across the entire moderate spectrum agree that the election outcome in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is a direct response to Merkel’s refugee policy.

More than a million asylum-seekers came to Germany in 2015. Merkel’s controversial claim at the height of the crisis that “we can cope” is believed by many of her fellow Christian Democrats and Christian Social Unionists to have fuelled the rise of the AfD, while the Social Democrats, also in the ruling coalition, had their doubts regarding sufficient federal government support for integration measures.

Numbers of arrivals have fallen dramatically this year, with a mere 238,424 refugees arriving between January and July. Nevertheless, having covered the shock election result in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, one television channel was quick to remark that funding of benefits for refugees was at its highest since the crisis had started.

The AfD has a strong focus on Islamic issues in its party manifesto, stressing that Islam “does not belong to Germany”. It demands that Islam theology chairs, introduced a few years ago for the education of imams, be abolished and posts be transferred to confessionally neutral Islamic studies.

In line with its general European Union-critical, 'sovereign Germany' stance, the AfD calls for a reversal of the Bologna reforms and a reintroduction of the old Diplom, Magister and Staatsexamen degree that would replace the bachelor and masters degrees. However, no mention is made of foreign students.

AfD student groups have been introduced at various universities, and some of them maintain strong links with far-right student fraternities. One of the issues they have taken up is the use of student sports facilities to accommodate refugees in some cities. However, their influence has been minimal, and their youth organisation Junge Alternative has so far gained only one seat, in student parliament elections at the University of Kassel.

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