Access to higher education is a fundamental human right. Yet for many refugees, studying at university is just a dream. According to the UNHCR report Education 2030: A Strategy for Refugee Education, in 2018 just 3% of refugees around the world were in higher education, compared to 37% of non-refugee students. This gap is largely related to the complexity of migration and the situation in host countries. To exchange views on the subject with academia, state secretary for Asylum and Migration Nicole De Moor visited VUB.
The challenges that students with a migration background face when they want to study in their host country can be caused by many factors: migration experience, socio-economic status, language skills, gender, family and living situation, etc. As a socially connected institution, VUB takes very seriously its role and responsibility in relation to major societal challenges, including the refugee crisis and diversity in Brussels and elsewhere. It does this with various programmes adapted to the relevant needs.
“Since 2016, a total of 785 students have applied to the Student Refugee Programme, of whom about a third have enrolled,” says Prof Dr Karin Vanderkerken, VUB vice-rector for Internationalisation. “Most of them come from Syria, Palestine, Turkey, Afghanistan and Iraq and are on our English-language master’s programmes. The Student Refugee Programme offers potential students with refugee status the chance to start or continue their studies by supporting them with information about study options, the intake process in higher education in Flanders, and the administrative procedures for registering.”
Ahead of the start of the academic year in September 2022, more than 200 refugee students contacted VUB to learn about study programmes, academic and language requirements, grants, services and more. Of the 94 students who went on to apply to VUB for the 2022-2023 academic year, 54 were accepted as full-time students at master or bachelor level.
Due to the war in Ukraine, several information sessions were organised for potential Ukrainian students. Since they generally receive international protection, they do not need to apply for refugee status. The Student Refugee Programme was the first point of contact for them to find support and information.
For other students, enrolment may be difficult because of a significant language deficit or other practical difficulties. For those people, VUB is setting up a preparatory year through its InCampus programme. The course prepares them with intensive English classes for the ITACE language test. They can sample two courses from their future bachelor or master programme during that time.
“Students are given access to follow-up sessions, in groups or individually, where their progress is monitored and where they can ask questions,” says Vanderkerken. “The programme also provides psychological assistance, cultural orientation, and information sessions on studying at VUB and the services available at the university.”
Through VUB’s regular tutoring services, students can attend workshops and receive individual support relating to their study path, career guidance and how to study. Furthermore, VUB and three other Flemish universities offer non-EEA individuals a Summer School where candidates prepare for medical school and learn how the Belgian healthcare system works.
Finally, because integration starts at an early age, the ALEF project organises Arabic language classes for children in a secular environment with a modern curriculum. This facilitates the integration of children from Arab backgrounds without losing their connection to their culture. During these interactive classes, they learn about Belgium’s values.
Nicole De Moor praised the efforts of VUB: “It’s good that VUB has an active policy around inclusion and diversity. The projects and teachers make a very big difference in the lives of these people in our society.”