In Switzerland very high structural and administrative barriers prevent refugees from attending universities. In order to improve the access of refugees, the Swiss Student Union has started a project which takes a two-pronged approach. On the one hand, VSS-UNES-USU supports local student unions to build up their own mentoring programmes by providing trainings and information. On the other hand, the project aims at connecting existing student initiatives and at developing policy recommendations. On January 23, VSS-UNES-USU released a policy paper containing their demands to eliminate the barriers and to improve the access to higher education for refugees.
With the exception of the University of Geneva, most Swiss universities insist on applying their regular admission procedures also to refugee students. This means that applicants with a high school diploma from outside the Lisbon treaty area have to sit a university entry exam which is supposed to ensure that the applicants have the same knowledge as a Swiss student after high school. It goes without saying that sitting such an exam is highly problematic for someone who has been out of school for some years and who may already have completed multiple years of study. This is made worse by the fact that the only preparation courses for this exam are offered by private institutions and are unaffordable for most refugees. Currently, many Swiss universities have programmes targeted at refugee students, but only at the University of Geneva the participants have the possibility to obtain credits. The other universities all consider these programmes “try-out semesters” during which refugees are supposed to see whether they fit into a university or not.
VSS-UNES-USU demands that a sustainable integration strategy is developed. It should follow the principle “education before work”. Furthermore, they demand that free preparation courses for university entry exams as well as language courses, that allow refugees to gain a sufficient level to attend university, are offered. VSS-UNES-USU demands that refugees’ language skills and their potential to attend higher education are evaluated at the beginning of the asylum process, so that refugees with the potential to study at a higher education institution (HEI) are not sent to cantons, where there is no university, or that people who already speak a national language are not sent to the “wrong” linguistic region. The wide-ranging demands offer concrete solutions to ameliorate the access of refugees to universities in Switzerland: Now let’s push for action!