Integrating refugees into German higher education - a holistic approach

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Integrating refugees into German higher education - a holistic approach

Contact details 

Submitted by: Katharina Fourier- Head of Section P43 - Higher Education Programmes for Refugees, German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) - Funding organisation for the international exchange of students and researchers

Email: [email protected]



“MEDIDUS” Welcome-Initiative by medical students of the Heinrich-Heine-University Düsseldorf (video with English subtitle).


Introduction to the project 




January 2016 and ongoing until the end of 2021.


Since 2016, more than 30,000 refugees have been successfully integrated into the German higher education system, guiding them into the academic world and preparing them properly for the following adjustment into the labour market.  

Project aims

The objective of the project is to successfully integrate refugees into a degree programme at a German university and to prepare them properly for the following transition into the labour market. The overall long-term goal of the project is to enhance refugee self-reliance, strengthen integration and social participation, and contribute at the same time to alleviating the shortage of skilled professionals in Germany and abroad.

With the help of the programmes, refugees are enabled to lead a self-determined life regarding their academic and professional future. This not only makes them economically independent, but also strengthens social participation and integration.    


“Math course for refugee students” Welcome-Initiative by students of the University Köln (video with English subtitle).


Main activities of the Good Practice

To successfully integrate refugees in university degree programmes a working set of requirements has been established. In view of the administrative and legal problems tied to enrolling refugees at university, the most effective way to guide refugees into the academic world was to build on existing and reliable structures as much as possible.

Providing such structures through universities requires support and additional financial resources from state and federal authorities.

The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) allocated one hundred million euros from 2016 to 2019 to this purpose. The DAAD channeled these funds into a variety of programmes and measures described in the following Four-Phase Model:

1. Entrance - recognising prior qualifications and orientation:

The DAAD quickly set up a website to inform refugees ( and universities on funding opportunities. The platform has been updated continuously.

Individual assessments are becoming routine in German higher education institutions to assess an applicant’s competences, especially if official documents go missing while fleeing from their country of origin.

The Test for Academic Studies (TestAS) which was already used for other international students can assess a prospective foreign student’s basic level of scholastic aptitude and provide orientation to universities, and also to refugees who are interested in pursuing a degree. As a first step of support, it assists refugees in continuing or starting academic studies in Germany.

2. Preparation - ensuring language and subject-related skills:

The Integra Programme enables academically qualified refugees at German universities and preparatory colleges to prepare for admission to regular degree programmes. The measures focus on offering the students preparatory subject-related courses and German language instruction, integrating them in the higher education sector as quickly as possible.

3. Study - academic progress, mentoring and supplementary modules:

The Welcome Programme: Students Helping Refugees also aims to quickly prepare academically qualified refugees for degree programmes in Germany and helps them integrate into higher education institutions and to their respective cities.

The programme is designed to provide long-term support to student organisations who are strongly committed to helping refugees. It also funds support and integration measures such as tutorials, mentoring, translation, counselling, and language courses etc.

4. Career - successful transition into the workforce:

As the right course for a future career for international and refugee students in Germany should already be set during studies, the Integra Programme also promotes measures for early orientation and preparation for the labour market. It also promotes the expansion of regional networks of universities with actors relevant to the labour market.

The new and upcoming PROFI Programme will prepare graduates with a refugee background for the transition into the national labour market. The programme provides refugee graduates whose foreign degree is not fully recognised to obtain a German university degree or a university certificate within a shorter period of study. This will enhance their qualification-based labour market integration and strengthen their social participation.


  • German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF): sponsor of the programmes.
  • Around 200 higher education institutions in Germany
  • Gesellschaft für akademische Studienvorbereitung und Testentwicklung (g.a.s.t.): student aptitude test for general and subject-related abilities of refugees and international students
  • Uni-assist: free application process for refugees with a foreign HE entrance certificate
  • Kiron Open Higher Education: an online learning platform for refugees worldwide


“Bunte Hände” Welcome-Initiative by students of the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences (video with English subtitle).


How challenges were overcome

Refugees form a special group of international students who are less oriented in the German higher education system and know little German. Besides needing thorough German language training, this also means an increased need for advice, and requires appropriate training for university staff in these areas.

A big challenge in the beginning of the Welcome initiatives was to reach the target group. On the one hand the target group was not aware of the programmes offered, and on the other, there was no regular contact with the initial reception centres for refugees. The majority of those responsible for the projects have reported difficulties due to a lack of language skills, or traumatic experience of the participants. Additionally, the costs of living have to be covered by students themselves.

In general, there are no tuition fees in Germany for national or foreign students including refugees. Accepted refugees are also eligible for the federal student grant program (BAföG), and student loans programs (Studienkredit), as well as grant programmes with political or religious foundations.

Concerning advice, the DAAD, within the framework of the “International DAAD Academy” (iDA), set up a special training programme for university staff who advise refugees in their daily work. The programme includes, for example, seminars on the integration of refugees, or seminars to ensure their academic success.

Public relation work was intensified within the framework of the projects. The initiatives, for example, got in contact with the initial reception centres for refugees in order to promote their programmes. The projects have been further developed and adjusted to the needs of the participants.

Results of the Good Practice

  • High impact on academic and social integration of refugees: Every year more than 40,000 refugees benefit from the advice provided under the programmes. Between 2016 and 2019 around 10,000 refugees have taken part in a preparatory course each year.
  • Current estimates suggest that more than 30,000 refugees are enrolled in regular study programmes in Bachelor, Master or Doctoral levels. With a total of more than 13,000, Syrian students form the third largest group of foreign students studying at German universities thanks to the support of the programmes.

Next steps

The programmes have been implemented successfully for four years and have proven highly effective in guiding tens of thousands of refugees into the academic world, and enabled them to achieve success within it.

The broad implementation across Germany has instigated a learning process at German universities and led to a gradual opening up of these measures to other international students, in recognising they have similar needs and requirements.

Due to this opening up and a constant adaptation of the measures to changing needs as well as the general progress of the target group, there is currently a shift in emphasis towards more study-accompanying measures, and customized qualification measures – to improve the transition into the German labour market, which also represents a great opportunity in view of the current shortage of skilled workers in Germany.

The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research has thus decided to extend the programmes until the end of 2021.