Universities should be flexible on admitting refugees

National authorities and higher education institutions should take a flexible approach to the recognition of degrees, periods of study and prior learning of refugees, in line with the Lisbon Recognition Convention, according to a new study by the European Students’ Union.

The study* on recognition of qualifications held by refugees and their access to higher education in Europe analyses how a selected pool of countries uses education as an instrument for inclusion of refugees, asylum seekers and displaced people.

The report includes detailed country analyses of Romania, Belgium, Norway and Germany. The chosen countries represent different parts of Europe as well as countries that face specific challenges in coping with the inclusion of refugees into higher education and that have partially found solutions for these problems that might serve as good practice examples.

The report argues that providing access to education for refugees contributes to the country economically and societally.

But this contribution will only be made if national higher education systems fulfil their commitments to social dimension, by developing and implementing strategies and measures to mirror the diversity of society.

Liva Vikmane, vice-president of the European Students’ Union, said: “Europe cannot afford the loss of potential of students, academics and intellectuals for the countries that are now affected by the conflicts causing the refugees [to flee].

“This report challenges the common belief that the refugees are the problem. European structures and systems clearly need to be more inclusive.”

The report cites UN refugee agency UNHCR 2015 data showing that more than half (51%) of refugees were under 18 years old and the average time of exile for refugees is 20 years, yet only 1% of refugees gain access to tertiary education, compared to 34% of young people globally.

According to the information provided by the European Higher Education Area, the main barriers refugees face when accessing higher education in Europe are lack of information; lack of advice and individual guidance; recognition of credits and qualifications, particularly without documents; inadequate language support provisions and lack of adequate financing.

One of the tools used to provide wider participation in higher education for refugees is recognition of their qualifications. National authorities and higher education institutions should ensure flexible procedures for the recognition of degrees, periods of study and prior learning of refugees, in line with the Lisbon Recognition Convention, the report says.

The higher education sector has to develop tools that allow assessing of qualifications, also without documentation. This additional work sees higher education institutions needing additional support from the state, the report says.

Initiatives like the European Qualifications Passport for Refugees or EQPR can be very useful, also because they would assure the transferability of recognition decisions across European countries.

The EQPR is a document providing an assessment of the refugee’s higher education qualifications based on available documentation and a structured interview. It also presents information on the applicant’s work experience and language proficiency. The document provides reliable information for integration and progression towards employment and admission to further studies.

It is a specially developed assessment scheme for refugees, even for those who cannot fully document their qualifications.

In 2015, the European Network of Information Centres or ENICs and National Academic Recognition Information Centres or NARICs received applications for recognition of qualifications by 10,323 refugees in Sweden, 7,547 in Norway, 2,843 in Denmark, 2,226 in Germany, and 1,095 in the Netherlands.

However, despite the existing legal regulations – guaranteeing all displaced people the right to education – the ENICs and NARICs point out a number of challenges. These include: lack of information about the education systems and qualifications from countries in conflict, questionable authenticity of the documents provided, lack of documentation, incomplete qualifications and the number of applicants.


There are significant barriers of time, lengthy procedures and lack of adequate support and guidance that prevent refugees from pursuing their academic degrees, the report says.

The report shows that despite the variety of approaches to policy-making and implementation that the countries applied, they have elements in common. Bottom-up approaches and initiatives taken up by higher education institutions, staff, students and NGOs, regardless of the scope of governmental support, are central to refugees’ integration.

The report’ s comparison of the four cases concludes that the higher education sector in Europe is accepting its responsibility to aid in the integration of refugees in higher education.

Many universities cooperate with their students, student unions, professors and local partner organisations to better integrate refugees in their local communities. However, the level of preparedness and willingness of governments to support these initiatives varies, the report said.

Vikmane said the report aims to make initiatives for refugees more visible to other actors throughout Europe, hoping to encourage higher education institutions, students’ unions and other organisations to follow the good examples.

“We wanted to provide a valuable contribution to the European-wide debate through an evidence-based overview of the effectiveness of the existing measures for the integration of refugees and identify challenges that still need to be addressed,” Vikmane said.

The European Students’ Union is the umbrella organisation of 45 national unions of students from 38 European countries.

* Refugees Welcome? Recognition of qualifications held by refugees and their access to higher education in Europe – Country analyses