Tailoring support for refugee students: ‘They are amazed at the number of options’
Many people have fled to the Netherlands since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, including students. But even before this war, students with refugee backgrounds were eager to study at Leiden University. How does the University help young people from various backgrounds find their way around the Dutch higher education system? And how can we help make them feel at home here?
We spoke to Inge Wieringa, senior Admissions Officer at the Student and Education Affairs (SEA) expertise centre, and Ynette Caupain, student counsellor at SEA and Meeting Point Leiden.
Meeting Point Leiden
The Meeting Point is a gathering place for students who have recently come to the Netherlands and could use help finding their way around the university. These include students from refugee backgrounds and first-generation students. Staff help newcomers with admission procedures, choosing a degree programme, funding their studies and applying for jobs. They also offer tips about how to feel more at home at the university and meet other young people.
How do students find you? And what happens then?
Caupain: ‘In Leiden, we have an agreement with the UAF, (the foundation for refugee students), an organisation that is committed to the development of refugee students and professionals and their integration in the Dutch labour market. And often enough, students just walk in. They know how to find the Meeting Point.’
Wieringa: ‘In theory, students with a refugee background who already know they want to study in Leiden apply via Studielink. Much of this process is the same as for other international students, especially if they already have a verifiable diploma. But students with a refugee background don’t have to pay the application fee.’
‘Things only change if a diploma has not been obtained or cannot be provided. Then we embark on an alternative route. The Netherlands signed the Lisbon Recognition Convention issabon Erkenningsconventie, which means we are committed to comparing foreign diplomas with Dutch ones. This allows students from refugee backgrounds to enter at the right level. We look closely at what the student says they have done and talk about what the student remembers about their education, courses, literature, skills taught, mode of assessment, and so on. Then sometimes we work with a course lecturer to see whether we can decide on admission without verification of prior education, and if so, at what level.’
Nedime Coskun’s experience
Nedime came to the Netherlands from Turkey four years ago and wanted to resume her studies as quickly as possible. She had already studied law for a year and a half in Turkey, but in the Netherlands she would have to learn the language first. Meanwhile, she sought contact with the university herself: she scoured the website using search terms like ‘refugee student’. That’s how Nedime ended up at the Meeting Point.
There, she and student counsellor Lesage Munyemana talked for hours about all the possibilities. Diploma assessment, language exams: Nedime received helpful tips about her next steps in Leiden. As she tried to improve her Dutch during the pandemic, she had little contact with Dutch people. Practising at the Meeting Point helped her growth immensely. Twice a week there was an online meeting with a small group in which they discussed their personal experiences and academic life and skills like writing skills. They discussed how to prepare for lectures and tutorials, for example.
‘I like the system here better than the one in Turkey’, Nedime says. ‘I feel like I learn better in bits and pieces. I was advised to talk to the study adviser about my language development, and she helped me tremendously. Because of her, I can now take a dictionary to my exams, and I get extra reading time. I’m entering my third year of law, so two years of my studies were during the pandemic. Starting during that time was very difficult for me. It caused me a study delay, but with the study adviser’s help, I can make up that time next year.’
What are the biggest challenges for these students?
Wieringa: ‘In the admissions process, we try to give students from refugee backgrounds the benefit of the doubt. But that is also difficult and complex because, of course, it has to work. There are thousands of admissions of international students every year, and that procedure is standardised. But it doesn’t work for students from refugee backgrounds, which makes it necessary to look at their situations on a person-by-person basis. Moreover, students from refugee backgrounds may get confused or demoralised if they receive an email they think does not apply to their situation. So standard emails don’t work for them.’
‘We also consider whether someone speaks English or Dutch well. Law, for example, is very difficult in terms of Dutch language, but some students with a refugee background can do it. Although you want to give students an opportunity, you also don’t want to ignore how difficult students can find this degree programme.’
Caupain adds: ‘Diplomas from other countries are sometimes assessed lower in the Netherlands than students expect. That can be very disappointing for them. But what we want to know is whether the diploma is comparable to the level here.’
Wieringa: ‘For example, sometimes we conclude that a degree programme at a university of applied sciences would be a better fit. Or younger students may need to go back to school to earn a higher general secondary education (HAVO) or pre-university education (VWO) degree here. And sometimes we see if we can admit someone with a slightly lesser qualification anyway.’ That group of applicants can also sign up for IncLUsion. This student initiative allows refugees who cannot (yet) enrol as students to still take courses at Leiden University (see box).
The IncLUsion student initiative allows refugees who cannot (yet) enrol as students to still take courses at Leiden University. There are also student buddies on hand to help them find their way with both the practical and social aspects of studying. In doing so, they contribute to the refugees’ integration. Refugees who do not yet have a Dutch residence permit are given priority in this programme.
How do we prepare these students to study in a new culture?
Caupain: ‘The Leiden Preparatory Year helps students with a refugee background prepare for their possible enrolment at a university of applied sciences or research university. This is recommended for most students from Syria and other non-Western countries, for example, because education in their home countries can differ greatly from our Dutch education system. Often in non-Western countries, the focus is on reproducing knowledge, while in the Netherlands the focus is more on understanding and applying material. Critical thinking is also an important part of our higher education, as are group work and presenting. Without the right preparation, it’s often very difficult for such students to find their way at university, even though they have the ability and intelligence to do so.’
‘In addition, before a student starts Dutch higher education, they need to have at least CEFR level B2 in the Dutch language. This is also addressed in the Preparatory Year.’
Leiden Preparatory Year
In the Leiden Preparatory Year (an initiative of University of Applied Sciences Leiden and Leiden University), students between the ages of 18 and 28 with a refugee background can develop towards the desired starting level in higher education. This programme can facilitate entry into a bachelor’s degree programme or help prepare participants to pursue a master’s degree in the Netherlands. It will soon transform into a broader transition programme in collaboration with The Hague University of Applied Sciences.
How do these students find their footing at university?
Caupain: ‘That’s what we at the Meeting Point are there for. We started in 2016 in response to the large refugee influx from Syria. Since then, we’ve counselled all kinds of students, from Yemen, Afghanistan, Turkey... There’s no one kind of refugee. We rarely see Ukrainian refugees at our Meeting Point. The difference is also related to Western studies, with which they are already familiar. Education is arranged more or less the same in their country.’
Wieringa: ‘We do see a lot of Ukrainian students. It’s true that it’s easier for them to get used to the Dutch education system, but this group still requires customisation in the application procedure, different rules around finances and tuition fees, extra opportunities for language support, and so on.’
Caupain: ‘An interesting point about study choices is that most students with a refugee background want to become doctors, dentists or lawyers. They sometimes are amazed at the number of options here at the university. And sometimes a degree programme at a university of applied sciences is a better fit for their goals. We often see that they chose a degree programme in the past because their parents wanted them to pursue it. And now in the Netherlands, they suddenly have the chance to choose a direction that suits them better. That can be quite confusing.’
‘We focus on choosing a programme, learning study and language skills, and getting financial affairs in order. In addition, students from refugee backgrounds often get a buddy: a student from their degree programme. They can do things together like study or practise the language, but also just have personal conversations and share their experiences. They might also share a hobby, like horseback riding, playing music or cooking together. We also collaborate with Student Support Services in this effort. In this way, we hope to create an equal relationship between young people in which they meet someone with the same interests/degree programme and learn substantive things from each other. And we also want to help create a safe environment in which students from refugee backgrounds can ask a peer questions.’
Congratulations on your five-year anniversary! How is the Meeting Point doing now?
Caupain: ‘The first batch of students with a refugee background graduated this year, and that’s very cool. Most have gone on to pursue a master’s degree, and some have done so well that they are doing two bachelor’s programmes. One guy from Syria is now graduating with a bachelor’s degree in International Relations.’
‘We celebrated our anniversary on 4 October at The Hague’s Korzo Theater with a wonderful theatre networking event: 1+1 = 3; the university and refugee students learn from each other. This was a theatre networking event with live music where attendees got to know new Dutch residents, their talents and their dreams.’
Tekst: Imme Visser