Kiron: Breaking Down Barriers to Higher Education for Refugees


BERLIN — High costs and the lack of required documents often create barriers to higher education for refugees in their host countries. In Germany, for instance, it often takes years until young refugees are able to enroll at colleges and universities. This issue prompted two German students to create an alternative: Kiron Open Higher Education.

Providing refugees with access to higher education is not only a humanitarian mission. It is also a significant basis for the newcomers’ economic integration and enables them to gain financial independence. Additionally, host country businesses can profit from the skills and experiences of well-educated refugees.

In a report on the situation of Syrian students in Jordan, historian Keith David Watenpaugh and his co-authors examine another argument for the importance of university education for Syrian refugees in particular. According to the report, Syria “faces the loss of a generation of university graduates”, whose qualifications would be crucial for the rebuilding of Syria in the future. This generation could act as a “modern and moderating force in confronting the religious intolerance and ethnic hatred” that batter the country.

But with the high numbers of refugees that European and Middle Eastern countries have to attend to at the moment, higher education is not a primary concern and is waylaid by the provision for basic human needs.

Refugees often face bureaucratic hurdles in their pursuit of higher education: foreign high school diplomas are not acknowledged everywhere; identification and academic records have been left behind or lost in transit. Refugees also have to overcome language barriers. Additionally, they are often unable to afford tuition fees and the costs of living for a full-time study program.

To address this problem not only for refugees in Germany but all over the world, students Vincent Zimmer and Markus Kreßler founded the social startup Kiron Open Higher Education in March 2015. It is aimed to broaden access to higher education for refugees by removing the barriers of costs, presuppositions and documents.

Initially, students are not required to submit identification or school certificates to enroll in the free programs. The refugees only need a document proving their refugee status and an internet connection to get started with their studies. The programs start with flexible online classes for two years. Then, the students are transferred to traditional universities to finish their studies. Only at this point do they need to present the documents the university usually requires.

The European Credit Transfer System certifies the courses offered by Kiron, making it internationally recognized. Today, 2,300 students are enrolled at Kiron University. It collaborates with 41 partner universities to offer language courses as well as five study tracks: business and economics, computer science, mechanical engineering, political science and social work. The startup is funded by donations and is run by more than 70 employees and 400 volunteers.

To be able to provide education for free, Kiron draws on already existing online materials, including from elite universities like Harvard and Cambridge. Additionally, Kiron has a team of volunteer developers in Brussels producing original learning materials and e-learning technology. Kiron also offers additional services like personal counseling sessions in various languages, career and study mentoring and a buddy program.

Kiron is still in its infancy, but the startup has grown quickly and illustrates the promise of how digital technology can be used to spread the access to higher education for refugees.

Lena Riebl

Photo: Flickr


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