Providing refugees with access to higher education and thus skilled labour market – for what it’s worth

Assessing the long-term impact of refugee students on the higher education and the business sector

Since 2015, many initiatives and projects have been launched to accommodate refugees with the ability to study, especially in Germany. Implemented by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) has since then supported the majority of German universities to prepare more than 10,000 refugees for university studies through measures such as language courses, bridge programmes, and a consultation services infrastructure. Kiron Open Higher Education uses digital solutions to provide refugees with access to quality higher education and supports study interested refugees with their transition to traditional higher education institutions in their regular study programmes.

So far, more than 30 Kiron students and many other refugees all over Germany successfully transferred to higher education institutions. However, what overall impact would this actually have on higher education as well as the business sector? This question is worth being investigated as, according to the Hochschulbildungsreport (Stifterverband 2017), it can be expected that at least 40,000 refugees will take up studies in Germany until 2020.

Assessing the impact of students with refugee backgrounds on higher education institutions

In order to assess the potential impact that refugee students will have during their time at higher education institutions, one cannot draw on existing literature regarding the effect of refugee students on their host higher education institutions. This is because the research community did not in-depth pay close attention to the impact of the integration of refugees into the higher education systems as access to tertiary education among refugees has always been very limited with global numbers stating it is less than 1 percent (University World News 2016). As such, solid research on this topic was not readily obtainable until the huge influx of refugees in Europe in 2015 (Eckhardt et al. 2017).
As the closest point of reference to these phenomenon, higher education institutions around the globe have gained long-standing experience when it comes to the mobility of international students for some time as the international dimension is a key issue in European higher education discourses and practices since the 1990s, mainly triggered by the success story of the ERASMUS programme (Teichler 2009). As a result, we can find numerous studies on the effects of international students on their host institutions, which serves as the closest reference point for the stated research question.

In order to demonstrate the impact of international students – as the closest reference point to refugee students in the literature – on their host academic institution we can differentiate between effects at the institutional level (i.e. structures, processes and strategies) and the individual level (i.e. attitudes, competences and behavior of students and staff). On an institutional level, the presence of international students has led to an expansion of support structures specifically aimed at international students (incoming) as well as for local students and their potential to study abroad (Vossenstein 2008; Reis, Brandenburg and Röwert 2014). Moreover, the integration of international students has motivated many institutions to establish non-curriculum related measures to foster the interaction between international and local students such as peer-mentoring programmes, international student clubs, or intercultural trainings (Ward 2006; Otten 2010; Klabunde 2014).

Especially the introduction of non-curriculum related structures is rather unusual for German higher education institutions as they usually see themselves as pure educational institutions with the focus on the imparting of knowledge rather than being a social actor that promotes social participation and personal development. One can assume that the presence of students with a refugee background (e.g. Kiron alumni) on the campuses of the higher educational institutions further stimulates these developments. Further research has shown that the presence of international students also facilitates consequences in the lecture rooms (Brakel et al. 2004; Vossensteyn et al. 2008; Sawir 2011 and 2013). In reaction to a larger share of international students (but mainly depending on the field of study) lecturers further integrate international dimensions into their teaching methods and content (e.g. more internationally oriented case study examples, changes in the choice of seminar readings and a more extensive reflection on study group constellations). It can be expected that the presence of refugee students will further intensify these tendencies of internationalisation of teaching-learning processes (i.e. integrating not only international case study examples and seminar readings but even more examples and cases from developing countries).

At the individual level, research confirmed that the presence of international students further generates the interest of domestic students to study abroad and gather intercultural experiences (Bosse and Tomberger 2012; Jon 2013; Reis, Brandenburg and Röwert 2014). Furthermore, the enhancement of intercultural competences on both sides —domestic and international students — may be a result of the interaction between the two groups. Research shows that this may be the case but only if interaction is supported by the institution (Volet and Ang 1998). Studies also find that very often there is little interaction with high levels of disinterest shown between domestic and international students if there is no external support (Eisenchlas and Trevaskes 2003). Thus, we can assume that the interaction of refugee students and students of the partner host institutions will lead to the further development of intercultural competences on the side of the domestic students but only if the institution will foster the interaction between the two groups. These first thoughts generate hypotheses for further researching the effects of the successful transition of students with refugee backgrounds to higher education institutions in Germany and other countries.

Assessing the impact of alumni with refugee backgrounds on the business sector

The overarching goal of Kiron Open Higher Education is to open-up the possibility for refugees to enter the high qualified labor market by achieving a degree from an accredited partner higher education institution. After having investigated the potential impact of students with refugee backgrounds on higher education institutions one can further question the effects these alumni (with refugee backgrounds) have on businesses after successfully being integrated into the labor market (e.g. in Germany as one of the major host countries for refugees and one of the focus countries of Kiron).

First of all, the German labor market and, thus, business world are facing two major challenges. The demand for a high-skilled workforce has recently been rapidly growing and Germany is being facing a strong demographic change, with the expected size of the population rapidly decreasing and the average age of the labor force rising significantly (Garloff and Wapler 2006). In addition to the clear benefit the German business sector would have from a well-educated workforce, these young people are are also equipped with a high-level of motivation and commitment — qualities that displaced people (have to) demonstrate when they have left their own country of origin to provide for their future in an uncertain context (Charta der Vielfalt 2015). Furthermore, German businesses today are confronted with a growing diversity of customer groups. In order to remain competitive and innovative (to say nothing of being equitable and inclusive), organizations increasingly take on the concepts of diversity management (Gröschl 2016). Diversity management is an ongoing process which unleashes the heterogeneous constellation of talents and competencies that a diverse workforce brings into businesses. These diverse competencies help companies accommodate different customer groups and business partners, facilitate the activities and innovations in new markets, and make the organisations’ public image more compelling (Charta der Vielfalt 2015). Thus, diversity though integration of high- skilled refugees offers new opportunities.

Businesses can use the cultural diversity as a resource and value-add in accordance with their individual market demands. These effects are particularly strong in an increasingly globalized and interdependent world (i.e. international markets and business growth are dependent on intercultural and language skills of employees ). Recent research on the concrete effects of professionals with refugee backgrounds on the business sector is very limited. Therefore, these first conclusions may serve as an outline for a respective research agenda.


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