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MaRIHE Master thesis reader e-book 2016

Widening Access to Refugees: Responses of Austrian Public Universities

Isil Gyney

Background of the study

The year 2015 marked a turning point in migration history of world as violence, persecution, war, poverty, climate change and natural disasters drove millions of people away from their homes and generated prolonged displacements. The UN figures (United Nations, 2016) indicate that the number of international migrants have surged substantially in the last two decades from 173 million in 2000 up to 244 million in 2015. Refugees constituted a significant part of this mass exodus of people. Accordingly, over a million migrants and refugees crossed borders into Europe in the last few years, which sparked a migration crisis unprecedented in scale in Europe since 1950s.

Having caught unprepared for large streams of migration, Europe has had to tackle with an array of policy issues ranging from humanitarian aid, border control, human trafficking, integration, education, European neighborhood policy, disputes between member countries on EU common law relating to asylum, borders and immigration and so on. As the primary concern of hosting countries has been humanitarian aid related to food, shelter, and health in this process, it has taken a while to realize that due to displacement, refugee youth miss out on higher education (HE). In their article in University World News titled “The Syrian refugee crisis – What can universities do?”, Altbach and de Wit (2015) called on higher education institutions (HEIs) to respond to the needs of refugee students and opened up discussions for the role that HEIs could play in responding to the crisis and integration of refugees along with challenges they face in accessing HE. Analyzing the current situation from the perspective of human capital, they highlight the potential of refugees in knowledge economy and benefits HEIs could derive from widening access to refugee students. Recognizing the both immediate and long-term challenges ahead, the authors draw attention to the fact that integration of refugees could yield positive results for integration of refugees, internationalizing the campus and social engagement of academic communities.

Along with the call to academic community and universities, widening access to refugees has started to be more commonly discussed in the context of EHEA and social dimension of Bologna process as it is closely linked with the overall goals of the latter. Yet, increased participation of underrepresented groups still remains a challenge for the Bologna process.

In this context, the focus of this thesis is refugees who constitute just one segment of these underrepresented groups and their access to higher education. Given the vast bulk of literature dealing with immigration and integration, the thesis probes into access of refugees into higher education within the context of Austrian HE and responses of universities in their efforts to integrate them into their systems. Having been the third country that has received the most asylum applications in Europe, Austria has tried both to reconcile between handling the refugee crisis and political debates that come along with it. The Universities Austria (UNIKO) launched an initiative called MORE for refugees solely targeting refugee students in September 2015 with participation of 19 public universities for humanitarian aid, fundraising, language courses and integration based on their infrastructure and capabilities and universities exerted varying degrees of efforts for facilitation of access of refugees.

Research Objective and Research Question

The overall aim of this research is to expand an understanding of a how a national higher education system in Europe responds to including refugees with emphasis on recent developments upon the case of emergency pursuant to an unexpected mass migration.

Thus, the objectives of this research are to:

  • identify the challenges against refugee students’ access to HE 
  • evaluate critically national and institutional policies relevant to facilitation of refugee students’ access to HE
  • explore stakeholder views and practices related to refugees’ access to HE
  • formulate recommendations on facilitation of refugee higher education

The research question of the thesis is: “How do public universities in Austria respond to including asylum seekers/refugees to higher education?


  • How do universities position themselves in terms of including asylum seekers/refugees?
  • What policies and practical strategies do universities employ to adapt themselves to include refugees/asylum seekers?
  • What kind of approaches do universities adopt to include refugees and asylum seekers? 
  • What obstacles do they face in achieving this objective?

Conceptual Framework

Three main bodies of literature underpinned the conceptual framework. Concepts and theories from sociology of education, literature on widening participation (WP)&institutional responses to WP, and studies on refugees were reviewed and intertwined to provide the background for the conceptual framework. Given the background on the review of the literature on refugees, WP and institutional responses of universities, a conceptual framework for refugees’ integration into higher education was proposed. It was adapted from the conceptual framework proposed by Ager and Strang (2008) for identifying key domains of integration into the host society.

In this conceptual framework, foundation refers to macro, meso and micro level policy context, which influence refugees’ access to higher education. Macro level policies stand for policies, laws, rules, procedures of supranational institutions that affect policy making processes at meso and micro levels such as European Union or any other binding policy context such as common immigration laws, Bologna process, higher education laws, or Lisbon Treaty and so on. While meso-level refers to processes taking at the national level, government policies related to migration or higher education, micro level refers to institutional processes, activities of individual HE institutions, units, student unions, individual students, researchers or academicians. For the purpose of this thesis, European, national and institutional policies concerning refugees’ access to HE will be analyzed. At the national and institutional level, dimensions of admission, recognition of foreign qualifications, language, finance and integration will be utilized.

Figure 1. Conceptual Framework for Refugees’ Integration into Higher Education (adapted from Ager&Strang, 2008)

RFQ: Recognition of Foreign Qualifications; RPL: Recognition of Prior Learning


The research delves into integration of refugees into Austrian universities inclusion by adopting qualitative case study as research strategy and by collecting qualitative data from pertinent stakeholders. The study unit of analysis is public universities in Austria. There are four types of universities in Austria; public universities, universities of applied sciences, university colleges of teacher education and private universities. Public universities were chosen as unit of analysis as they participate in the refugee initiative of the UNIKO. The case study data in this study relies on two data collection techniques: semi-structured interviews and documentary secondary data.

Data Collection

First source of data was collected through semi-structured interviews from various stakeholders representing Austrian higher education system. 18 semi-structured interviews with members of senior management from the BMWFW, UNIKO, public universities, expert and students were conducted spanning a five-month period between February and June 2016. Each interview lasted approximately 30-45 minutes. 14 face-to-face interviews were conducted whereas four participants preferred to reply via e-mail. During face-to-face interviews, 13 participants agreed for their interviews to be audio-recorded by a voice recorder of a mobile phone. Notes were taken down during one interview, in which the participant gave no consent for audio-recording. Consent was obtained from all participants. Consent letters including information on the purpose and scope of the thesis and questions, participation terms and confidentiality were sent to participants. In some cases, consent was obtained verbally before the interview.

Data Analysis

Qualitative content analysis was adopted as data analysis strategy for both interviews and documents. For the analysis of performance agreements, seventeen words were determined for keyword search; Diversity (Diversität), Minority (Minorität) Equality (Gleichstellung), Inequality (Ungleichheit), Migration/Migrant/Migration background (Migration/Migrant /Migrationshintergrund), Asylum (Asyl), Asylum-seeker (Asylwerber), Recognised refugee (Anerkannte Flüchtlinge/Asylberechtigte) Refugee (Flüchtlinge), Ethnic (Ethnisch), Social inclusion (Sozial Inklusion) Disadvantaged (Benachteiligt), Underrepresented (Unterrepräsentiert), Integration (Integration), Educationally disadvantaged (Bildungsferne). Then the data were organized into major themes, categories and case examples through content analysis. For interviews, a directed content analysis approach was adopted.

Key Findings and Discussion

Findings reveal that Austria has been paying more attention to social dimension of HE recently. The Ministry’s efforts to lie more emphasis on widening access seems to have gained pace after the Bologna process follow-up requirement that students entering HE should reflect the diversity of the population. This was reflected with the start of the national strategy preparation process for social dimension of HE. From the policy side, for the time being, there is no policy consideration to fund quotas or special places for refugees. Regarding incentivization of HEIs for including more refugees, soft incentives and cooperative approach such as commissioning studies and surveys to analyze the status quo, filling data gaps, identifying access barriers, including recommendations for remedial measures into the performance agreements with the universities are being suggested by the BMWFW in their efforts to help universities.

Almost no financial incentive exists for HEIs to have a strategy for widening access or expand its student body to have more underrepresented groups -except for the prospect of social inclusion to be incentivized through performance agreements- Already full to the brim with the number of students due to open access policy, struggling with retention rates, and funding, and many other societal demands, HEIs expect their efforts be appreciated.

Yet, Austrian universities have been responsive to the refugee crisis through humanitarian aid and educational support based on availability of their sources as much as they could. The MORE initiative is a singular holistic example of this in Europe. Efforts exerted by individual universities demonstrate their goodwill and responsiveness to societal challenges, which yet suffer from lack of funds.

Secondly, one could safely argue that integrating refugees into universities are not the main priorities of universities. The reasons are partly related to lack of funding for endorsing such activities and partly to more pressing problems that HEIs need to tackle with. Analysis of performance agreements of the 22 public universities in Austria reveal that that disadvantaged groups are most often defined by gender or disability. All universities have specific policies and actions pertaining to gender and disabled employees and students. Whilst all universities pay particular attention to gender and disability, a few universities define other cultural and demographic groups. Concerning institutional discourse in performance agreements, it is marked that few universities make specific mention of projects directed at underrepresented groups aiming to trace their situation across the whole student cycle. Outreach activities from universities to schools is evident. However, not all activities carried out under the title of outreach target underrepresented groups. Widening participation necessitates commitment on part of the institutions and should be embedded into the mission and culture of the institution, which in turn entails an institutional change. Most often such transformation is viewed to be damaging academic excellence. At this point, the key question is how far the institutions are willing to transform their systems.

Thirdly, the issue of widening access should be evaluated within the broader framework political and social agenda. Many issues inherent in refugees’ access to higher education are closely related with the overall education policy or immigration policy beyond universities’ control such as open access policy, early tracking of students, or asylum law entitling them to certain rights at various stages of asylum processes. Likewise, the issue of refugees per se cannot be considered indispensable of the wider political, social and economic context of the countries. Being a delicate issue across all countries in Europe and elsewhere, immigration of refugees evoked differing responses in the refugee hosting countries, the most common pattern being seen is the surge in support for right-wing parties. The MORE initiative directed at refugees were targeted in Austria by a right-wing political party through parliamentary questions, which in essence questioned the activities in terms of their conformity with the Austrian law and perceived discrimination against Austrian and other third-country and international students. Hence, issues of access for refugees to HE remains intricately linked with political and social dynamics as well.

Regarding the challenges from refugees’ side language, funding, lack of documentation and lack of information constitute the major challenges Lack of language proficiency presented obstacles in access to HE, joining social life and the labor market. Waiting period during the asylum procedure and lack of quality courses during this time were reported to have affected language learning unfavorably. In the absence of quality language provision during waiting time, students resorted to self-study, private courses or courses offered by NGOs. The lack of possibilities to practice German language with native speakers were mentioned as a barrier since they currently have little contact with them. Due to lack of language skills, interaction with society through employment remains lacking as well. Secondly, funding presents another major challenge for both refugees and HEIs. For HEIs, there are no incentives to extend their activities in the field of LLL or WP and indicators for LLL or societal engagement play lesser role in the funding allocations. Lack of sufficient funds for refugees, information on funding opportunities, and entitlement to funding based on legal status of immigration complicate refugees’ study chances. Thirdly, although pre-entry guidance was provided by student unions, NGOs and admission offices on admission conditions, funding, study choice and accommodation, there is still need for refugee- and asylum seeker-specific information available on accessing HE, funding, educational opportunities and language courses.

Finally, whilst the refugees having been interviewed within the scope of this study had their official documents for access to HE with them, lack of documents, identity cards and fraud in documentation were reported to have constituted problems for individuals and institutions.

It can be concluded that Austrian HE system has been responsive to the massive immigration of refugees and exerted varying degrees of support to them with humanitarian and altruistic motives, yet more sustainable solutions are required. Amidst the political debates, while efforts are being exerted by individual universities and NGOs to meet immediate challenges, funding and support from the policy side remain scarce. Thus, a national action plan for education of refugees is needed.

Recommendations for Policy-making

Recommendation 1: In-depth research targeting both pre-entry or studying refugee students to identify their challenges and needs could be commissioned to have an insight into their living &learning conditions. Recognizing that refuges may have special needs other than international or non- traditional students, policies to support them need to be formulated accordingly.

Recommendation 2: A concerted national action plan for education of refugees could be devised with involvement of various stakeholders from the field of education, policy-making, local authorities, employment office, NGOs and business&industry sectors backed by policy side of HE. Efforts directed towards refugee HE are fragmented. For the time being, activities are carried out by individual institutions rather than holistic policies stretching across all levels of education and addressing the needs of the labor market. Universities’ expertise could be utilized for joint projects.

Recommendation 3: Certain fields of study could be prioritized depending on analysis of both needs of the country and labor market and competences and skills refugees have. Hence, short vocational pathways could be an alternative in order for people to get employability skills.

Recommendation 4: Initiatives of HEIs, student unions, students, NGOs and other education providers could be incentivized in their efforts to assist in refugees. Basic needs such as transportation, stationary, books, accommodation or orientation courses offered by universities could be supported through funding or crowdsourcing campaigns.

Recommendation 5: More information, clear and accessible guidance should be provided on asylum seekers’ and refugees’ entitlements in relation to further and HE. Refugee and asylum seeker-specific advice and guidance sessions, could be offered covering such topics as careers advice, HE entry processes, study programs, course choices, other learning opportunities and university life. Information packages or HE toolkits comprising essential information for asylum seekers and refugees in various languages could be delivered to newly arrived asylum-seekers.

A single web information portal on HE in Austria in various languages including the native languages of refugees providing both general information and issues that solely concern refugees could be set up or such compact information could be provided on one of the existing websites on HE in Austria. One could find a good deal of information about Austrian HE system online yet information is scattered and there is no single website covering all information that a refugee student needs or providing all links related to funding, student financial aid, language course offerings, university preparation program, MORE program, recognition of qualifications and so on.

Recommendations for HEIs

Recommendation 1: HEIs could prepare WP strategy and agenda and establishing strategic committees such as diversity unit or assigning LLL units with the task so that progress of implementation could be monitored. Measurable targets should be set accordingly.

Recommendation 2: HEIs can collaborate with European and other international initiatives. One prominent example is the Kiron Open Higher Education, which is a social start-up from Germany and a crowdsourcing initiative that established a university for refugee students in 2015.

Recommendation 3: HEIs could align preparatory and bridging classes with the needs of the refugees. On that note, the orientation program for international students offered by the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences could serve as an example. While the program aims to have students reach up to B2 level Dutch language, it offers subject-specific preparatory courses such as Mathematics, Economics, Biology, History, Social Studies and Physics. Aside from preparatory courses for Bachelor education, the program offers workshops or courses such as Bachelor's Level Skills, Knowledge of Dutch Society (KNM), or Orientation into the Dutch Labour Market. The students familiarize themselves with both educational methods used in Dutch HE such as presentations, group work, project-based learning and lectures and culture and labor market of the Dutch society. Such classes could be added to the Vorstudienlehrgang program for refugee students (http://www.amsterdamuas.com/education/practical-matters/content/studiekiezers/hva-breed/studentenzaken/language-and-preparatory-course/language-and-preparatory-course.html)

Another example is the Foundation for Refugee Students UAF in the Netherlands which guides refugees on their study choices, during their studies and for job applications. While initially supporting them with language and develop learning skills, the UAF arranges training courses and networking meetings for refugees who are studying and graduates (https://www.uaf.nl/english).

Recommendation 4: HEIs could assist refugees’ language training by diversifying language learning opportunities through online learning, blended learning, MOOCs, or open educational resources.

Recommendation 5: Through recognition of prior learning or different modes of provision, refugees could have smoother transition to tertiary education.

Recommendation 6: More guidance at the pre-entry level is needed; hence, open days solely for refugees where they would be informed about the Austrian HE system, regulations, language requirements, available degree programs and degree certificates could be beneficial.

Recommendation 7: Professional development or awareness programs for staff could be offered to promote social inclusion. Inclusive teaching in terms of curriculum, content delivery and assessment could be practiced.


I would like to express my gratitude, to my supervisor Dr.Habil. Attila Pausits, our professors in the MARIHE program, my dear Marihe friends and all participants of the study.


Ager, A., & Strang, A. (2008). Understanding integration: A conceptual framework. Journal of refugee studies, 21(2), 166-191;
De Wit N., Altbach P. (2015). They Syrian Refugee Crisis – What can universities do? Retrieved from http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20150918113842639;
United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2016). International Migration Report 2015: Highlights (ST/ESA/SER.A/375). Retrieved from http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/migration/publications/migrationrepo rt/docs/MigrationReport2015_Highlights.pdf;

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