Critical roles for student affairs and services in refugee education

This article discusses a collection of six contributions to the recent publication Student Affairs and Services in Higher Education: Global foundations, issues, and best practices on the topic of refugee education in Germany. The names of all authors are listed following the article’s conclusion.

The access, experience and success of refugee background students in higher education reflects an emerging area of research, and one that intersects with migration studies and internationalisation scholarship.

In the last five years, there has been a particular concentration of literature on this topic focused on the German case given the comparatively high numbers of asylees and refugees, as well as the investment of €100 million (US$119 million) into supporting higher education for these groups.

Across contributions penned by policy advisors, journalists, researchers and staff members of the German Academic Exchange Service or DAAD and Deutsches Studentenwerk or DSW, various aspects of the public and private response to the refugee inflow since 2015 are addressed.

Both the humanitarian and the development rationales for the support of refugee education are discussed – particularly by Leon Cremonini – and Germany’s demographic crisis mentioned, as drivers of heavy federal and state investment in relevant funding programmes.

New topics emerge

A number of topics emerge from this section of the book that have not yet received much attention in the international literature.

For example, given that refugees have been resettled across Germany, it seems clear that rural, suburban and urban universities and pathway programmes alike will continue to welcome displaced students. How those various institutions have historically supported diverse students, and how they do so in the present moment, remains an under-studied topic.

Moreover, Michael Gardner points to existing career services offerings for migrants from ‘partner countries’ through the Centre for International Migration and Development. How services might be developed for refugee background graduates of technical or research universities seems a pressing question, given Germany’s tuition-free context which has historically indicated limited student services.

Some student services have been provided under the auspices of campus student unions but, as members of the Deutsches Studentenwerk note: “If the envisioned integration of refugees at German universities is to truly succeed, it will require an expansion of regular state funding of the social infrastructure” (p 165).

However, there is no question that a main theme emerging from this collection is the multi-faceted effort by DAAD and individual universities to meet the needs of prospective and enrolled displaced students. As Katharina Fourier, Katharina Maschke and Julia Kracht outline, DAAD’s four-phase model included:

1. Entrance: Assessing prerequisites for admission and aptitude – diagnostics and advising

2. Preparation: Preparing refugees for study – foundation courses, subject-relevant language courses and intercultural training

3. Study: Monitoring academic progress of refugee students – mentoring and supplementary modules

4. Career: Enabling transition into the workforce – coaching and customised qualification (under development at the time of printing).

This model provides a guide for more economically developed countries to support refugee and asylum students.

It might indicate, in the case of the United States, a centralised student information portal operated by each state indicating suggested preparation for post-secondary study, the admissions process at accredited colleges and universities, funding support mechanisms, and student advisory or mentorship programmes.

As is already the case at some German universities, institutional websites can easily provide campus-specific information in not only the language of instruction but other languages as well.

Unquenched thirst for higher education

Thomas Böhm and Isabelle Kappus observe in their piece that in an “initial representative survey, the Institute for Labor Market and Professional Research found that the refugees’ educational ambitions were high: 23% want to obtain an academic degree; 19% attended university in their native country; and a proportionate 13% already have a university degree” (pp 160-161).

This data is both compelling and dissonant with current enrolment rates among refugee background students in Germany and worldwide – 3% according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

All education stakeholders are called to consider institutional, local, regional and national interventions in response to this crisis with direct implications for the future rebuilding of current conflict states.

At the institutional level, for instance, what cumulative impact would it have on attainment rates if well-funded mentorship programmes matched entering refugee background students with enrolled students or recent alumni of similar linguistic background? At the regional level, what might the funding of two additional junior professorships in refugee education mean for corpus of research?

It is clear that critical theory and in particular critical race theory and postcolonial studies have important lessons for scholars and practitioners in this sphere: ‘one size fits all’ programming, for example, is insufficient and exclusionary. The next wave of literature on the German context seems likely to consider participatory approaches, to centre the experiences of students pursuing higher education, and to evaluate outcomes.

It is through an increased breadth and depth of literature that the policy sector will receive much of the data it needs to iterate funding and other supportive mechanisms. The collection of contributions gestures toward that future work and provides an entry point for student affairs professionals and others interested and invested in this vital area.

Lisa Unangst is a consultant at the American Council on Education or ACE, incoming postdoc at the Centre for Higher Education Governance Ghent, and lead editor of the recent book Refugees and Higher Education: Trans-national perspectives on access, equity, and internationalization. E-mail:

Names of authors and articles on refugee education in Germany

1. Overview by Roger B Ludeman: pp 144-145

2. “Higher education for refugees – An overview” by Leon Cremonini: pp 146-150

3. “Germany’s handling of the refugee crisis” by Michael Gardner: pp 150-153

4. “Germany invests heavily in higher education for refugees” by Lisa Unangst: pp 153-156

5. “Integrating refugees in the German higher education system – Insights gained from the DAAD Refugee Student Support Programmes” by Katharina Fourier, Katharina Maschke and Julia Kracht: pp 156-160

6. “Refuge at German universities” by Thomas Böhm and Isabelle Kappus: pp 160-165

This grouping of contributions can be accessed in Student Affairs and Services in Higher Education: Global foundations, issues, and best practices: pp 144-165. Author contact information can be found in Annex 1 of the book: pp 600-619.