The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why some German universities will educate refugees for free

A group of sub-Saharan Africans on a rubber dinghy wait to be rescued by the non-governmental organization Migrant Offshore Aid Station, some 25 miles off the Libyan coast, in this photo provided by MOAS on Oct. 4, 2014. (Darrin Zammit Lupi/MOAS via Reuters)

While affordable tuition for undocumented immigrants is a remote prospect in some parts of the United States, about 60 German universities are pushing forward a radical strategy: They are offering refugees the chance to attend courses as guest students, without charging any tuition fees. In fact, they even pay for transportation and offer scholarships to pay for books, according to German newspaper Handelsblatt.

Of course, Germany's higher education system couldn't be more distinct from the U.S. model: German universities have been tuition-free since the beginning of October. The country offers more than 900 English-language degrees even Americans could pursue for free, with courses ranging from engineering to social sciences.

However, asylum seekers would in the past have to had paid a fee, making it impossible for nearly all of them to attend courses. Moreover, some regional laws prohibited refugees from studying.

Although migrants remain unable to earn degrees while their asylum applications are being processed, attending the lectures under the new scheme is supposed to enable them to learn German quicker, and to already complete courses in preparation for a potential degree. If a refugee's asylum application is accepted by authorities, it is then possible to continue the selected courses as a degree-seeking student.

Germany offers free tuition to everyone who is in the country legally because it needs to attract more skilled workers to fit its high demand and low unemployment. But the vast majority of all refugees will not be allowed to stay permanently. Each student costs the German government about $10,000 per year. Moreover, the country's universities are already packed with students who hold German citizenship -- bringing in refugees will make colleges even more crowded.

So why are some German universities so keen on having refugees sit in their lecture halls?

"Migration is a task for all of society, and universities must do their part,” university of Hildesheim President Wolfgang-Uwe Friedrich told Handelsblatt. Given that German universities do not work like enterprises that have to compete against each other, they are free to broaden their mission. Offering such programs to refugees is a voluntary decision taken by university directors. So far, the diversity of colleges that participate ranges from elite institutions, such as the University of Munich, to smaller ones like the University of Hildesheim.

Whereas asylum seekers have faced anger, uneasiness or even violence in the past, mainly by rural eastern Germans, students and city dwellers have been much more welcoming. In many cities, refugee centers had to decline gifts and donations by neighbors because they already had received too much support.

The free guest student program could not exist without the support of volunteers. Induction and language courses are organized by fellow students, and sponsors offer financial aid to share the burden: That way, colleges can even offer much-needed psychological counseling for those traumatized by what they experienced in their home countries, such as Syria.

Germany, nevertheless, faces substantial challenges in dealing with the rising number of refugees in the country: 800,000 are expected to arrive this year alone. So far, it has proven difficult to accommodate even one fourth of them. Refugees may be able to study for free in Germany -- but many of them will nevertheless have to continue to sleep in makeshift tents.

Read also: 

Germany unnerved by scores of xenophobic attacks against refugees

Meet the man who rescued 600 migrants on his boat, and thinks others could do the same

Watch: Germany’s Merkel makes a young refugee girl cry, then tries to comfort her