SUCCESS project identifies potentials for promoting refugee students' access to higher education around the world

Diverse access requirements hinder refugees' successful integration into higher education in 66 host countries

18 December 2019

The way of life of refugees and people with a migration background largely depends on their possibilities to access education and vocational training in their host country without bureaucratic hurdles. Host countries also see the participation in educational programs as an effective means of promoting the integration of refugees and migrants. However, there is still a deficit of empirical studies investigating the integration process and its key influencing factors. To address this challenge, researchers at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) have participated in the "Success and Opportunities for Refugees in Higher Education" (SUCCESS) project. Their purpose has been to investigate the preconditions of (prospective) students with a flight background in 66 host countries when (re)entering higher education, the difficulties they face, the factors contributing to their successful integration into higher education, and the academic outcomes they achieve.

"What makes the integration of refugees in the tertiary education system of host countries most difficult is the wide range of study preconditions such as prior education and skills this group of prospective students brings with them," reported Professor Olga Zlatkin-Troitschanskaia, the head of the collaborative SUCCESS research project. The project receives funding from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and is a collaboration between Johannnes Gutenberg University Mainz, Kiron Open Higher Education, RWTH Aachen University, and Munich University of Applied Sciences.

Survey data on 1,376 refugees who are interested in studying and registered on the Kiron online learning platform

Kiron Open Higher Education is a non-profit organization based in Berlin, which launched an online learning platform open to refugees from all over the world in 2015. The aim of Kiron is to help participants gain access to or continue a regular course of study at a higher education institution in their host country as soon as possible. To this end, Kiron offers an online platform with academic study programs such as language courses and subject-specific courses. The SUCCESS team of researchers led by Professor Olga Zlatkin-Troitschanskaia surveyed 1,376 refugees interested in entering higher education who took an online study program on Kiron in the summer of 2017. The questions covered their study preconditions, including prior knowledge and skills. Moreover, the SUCCESS researchers investigated the students' progress on Kiron and their subsequent transfer to regular higher education courses over a period of three years. The SUCCESS researchers noticed that participation in the online courses is often interrupted and investigated the main reasons.

One of the main results of the survey is that the refugee students using Kiron exhibit extreme differences in their level of prior education and their study preconditions as well as in the external requirements they must meet to access higher education. The 1,376 survey participants came from 54 different countries of origin, with about 37 percent of them coming from Syria. Over the duration of their studies on Kiron, the refugees were living in 66 different host countries, including 28 percent in Germany, 18 percent in Jordan, and 13 percent in Turkey. Their average age was 28.5 years. Only 20 percent were female participants.

Most of the Kiron students had graduated from high school and were highly motivated to learn. However, they often lacked the necessary requirements to successfully complete a course at higher education level. "The school system in many of the countries of origin does not adequately prepare academically interested individuals to enter tertiary education in the host countries. Many also have difficulties with the English language and their academic aptitude is often not sufficient," reported Zlatkin-Troitschanskaia. English language skills are essential to be able to study on Kiron. However, 75 percent of respondents had not achieved the language proficiency level of B2, which is the recommended level for entry into academic education. Many refugees also have technical problems when it comes to gaining access to the online courses offered. For example, refugee camps lack the essential infrastructure required for online studying as provided by Kiron since the students often have no access to the Internet, no computers, or no learning spaces.

Language proficiency as important as individualized feedback and individual support

One recommendation of the SUCCESS researchers is to promote learning of a first and second foreign language, i.e., English as well as the language spoken in the host country, and to ensure full mastery of the mother tongue at the academic level. "Moreover, the causes for the failure to access higher education are complex and so far there has been too little attention paid to socio-cultural factors." The SUCCESS researchers strongly recommend that objective and valid diagnostics should be carried out before students start studying on Kiron to determine their actual level of prior education and their study-related abilities. In addition, learning process data needs to be collected and used to provide individualized feedback. One of the main conclusions of the SUCCESS project is that "students with a refugee background need more individual, appropriate, and specific approaches and measures to promote their integration into higher education and their academic success."