At least three days a week, Moussa rides a bike 15 kilometers to the university in the northern German city of Hildesheim. A monthly ticket for bus and train travel, after all, costs more than €60 – a lot of money for the 33-year-old refugee from Sudan.
Moussa is not allowed to study properly or take examinations, but he can attend courses at the university as a guest student, through a program where refugees can sit in lectures without paying fees.
During the summer semester he was there three times a week, attending seminars and lectures on politics and migration or democracy and Islam.
“I want contact with German students,” said Moussa, “I want to learn German.”
To just sit and wait in the small German village where he’s staying would be “very, very boring,” he said.
In Sudan, Moussa studied politics. In Germany he would like to add a Master’s degree in environment and nature protection.
“Migration is a task for all of society, and universities must do their part,” said university president Wolfgang-Uwe Friedrich, explaining why he set up the program.
According to the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK), a voluntary association of state universities, anyone can be a guest student in principle. Whether universities waive normal fees – or make it possible for them to take examinations – is usually up to the HRK. A number of universities are accepting refugees in this way, if only for unrestricted courses of study, which are open to students with any grade of high school diploma.
The language courses are financed by sponsors, and other students help the asylum seekers during the semester.
Sixty universities and colleges have set up programs, according to HRK. They offer information events, legal advice and German language courses, as well as psychological and social support.
Some waive semester fees, offer free bus tickets or provide financial support from hardship and scholarship funds. Some universities are particularly active, including those in Bremen, Erlangen-Nuremburg, Hildesheim, Ulm, Hohenheim and Munich.
The University of Erlangen-Nuremburg in Bavaria offers special language courses before a semester begins and provides access to lectures in unrestricted courses. The language courses are financed by sponsors, and other students help the asylum seekers during the semester.
Attentive fellow students and staff members are an important precondition, said a spokesperson for the University of Hildesheim. “It is often the case that refugees do not mention problems,” the spokesperson said.
For example, a young woman stopped coming to university because she could not afford the bus ticket. A solution was found for her.
There has also been progress on the political level. Beginning January 2016, refugees can apply for study grants after 15 months of residence instead of the current four years.
The city state of Berlin has made something of a turnabout on its stance towards asylum seekers who want to study. Would-be students were forbidden to study without a legal right of residence, but the Berlin senate said last week that this policy would be changed.
In the state of Saarland in southeastern Germany, refugees who are granted asylum are also supposed to be able to study selected subjects more quickly. One year of German tuition is designed to make them fit for university, providing they pass a suitability test. For the period of the German course they can also receive a study grant.
The test is necessary, not just in Saarland, because asylum applicants often cannot furnish a high school diploma or university degree certificate. Horst Hippler, head of the HRK, encouraged his colleagues therefore to “generously exploit any legal latitude.”
On the first day at the University of Hildesheim, students helped Moussa and other refugees, showed them the campus and told them how to get a library card. Later in the semester, Moussa usually went to lectures with a handful of other refugees.
“I don’t understand everything,” he said, “but at least I am there.”
He is still looking for a native German-speaking student to form a language partnership. The chances were looking good, said a spokesperson of the university, because more students than expected had applied to help.
The trial study phase inspired students. In the future, the plan is for students at universities in Lower Saxony to give targeted German lessons to refugees. The tutoring will be credited as part of their own studies and recognized as an internship.
“More than 8,000 young people in Lower Saxony study German as a university subject,” said Hildesheim’s university president, Mr. Friedrich. “That is the biggest resource we have.“
Students in Frankfurt have developed a program for underage refugees as a component of their course studies. The students spent three days with young refugees – who came to Germany on their own from Eritrea, Syria or Algeria – and showed them around the city.
“Since they had no language in common, they communicated with each other via Google Translate and hand gestures,” said lecturer Yvonne Ford.
Three of the students had a special interest in helping the newcomers adapt: They too had come to Germany from abroad.