Maastricht University (UM)

Linking refugees to the diversity strategy

Maastricht University (UM) has a global diversity strategy which focuses on activities rather than diversity characteristics.

Definition of the target group

Refugees need have the required legal status to be considered refugees. If they are not yet recognised as legal refugees, they are considered to be asylum seekers. While at UM, over 50% of the students are not Dutch, “migration background” would refer to “students with a non-western background.” These students are invited to self-identify.

Strengthening diversity competencies

UM offers international classroom training as part of its diversity strategy. This is included in their basic teacher training programme and includes intercultural competencies, such as how to create an inclusive atmosphere in the classroom with people of diverse backgrounds without singling out refugees.

Activities and services for refugees and students with a non-western background

Refugees UM has a language centre which offers mandatory Dutch and social integration courses for refugees of a certain educational level allowing them to obtain their residence status. These classes act as a stepping stone to higher education for many refugees. At UM, refugees pay the same tuition fees as European students but are exempt from paying the registration fee. In addition, UM implements the UMHERS scholarship programme, offering five tuition waivers per academic year for talented refugee students living in the MeuseRhine Euroregion. UM also allows asylum seekers to enrol in their courses. Unlike other institutions, which require asylum seekers to pay non-European tuition fees, UM only requires them to pay the same tuition fees as refugees and European students, making it a popular study destination among this target group. UM has psychologists who work with refugees. Ad hoc solutions are also provided to refugees on an individual basis, such as academic mentors and student buddies. Students with a non-western background UM boasts a range of special networks and student organisations for students with a non-western background, such as Afro-Caribbean students and Asian students. UM makes a pointed effort to consult these networks on the topic of inclusion. One example of this collaboration is the attempt to appoint people of colour among student support staff to deal with issues such as racial discrimination. The university holds targeted events such as empowerment workshops for students of colour and anti-racism workshops. In addition, UM is engaged in the integration of students with a non-western background in the Dutch labour market. It is currently planning an alumni-led workshop series for members of the target group who wish to stay working in the Netherlands, and the surrounding area, after their studies. Research on diversity and inclusion is also at the heart of UM’s work. Research into racism is currently ongoing, including focus groups for students and staff of colour as well as the entire university community. UM is currently devising a working definition of racism because it sees that experiences are interpreted differently by different students and staff, which makes it very difficult to address discrimination.

Coordination, monitoring and statistics

To monitor the inclusivity of the classroom and the workforce, recurring surveys are circulated among staff and students. A future aspiration is to have students assess their tutors and fellow students on the inclusiveness of the classroom atmosphere, competencies which are not yet formally assessed. If diversity and inclusion is something that is to be taken seriously, UM should have the means to monitor it. If competencies relating to diversity and inclusion are not included in evaluations, these topics will not be addressed. UM has a central contact person and mediator for refugees. This role involves being in contact with the university’s admissions officers, the municipality, and organisations dealing with refugees for financial support and housing. UM collects data on refugees’ legal status as well as their country of origin, but does not collect data on students with a non-western background. In 2021, approximately 50 refugees were enrolled in UM. No other data can be shared for privacy reasons. The central contact person cannot take any information from this database and it is up to the refugees themselves to get in touch with the contact person, if they so wish.

Challenges and lessons learnt

The higher education journey is a long and complicated path for refugees in the Netherlands and at UM. Enrolling on a higher education course can take up to two years, involving getting transcripts, and mastering English and learning Dutch, among other skills. Once enrolled, other challenges come to the fore. Many may only be studying because their foreign diploma is not recognised and therefore may not be motivated. Others may face financial or psychological problems, due to the fierce pressure they are under, hampering their studies and resulting in them re-enrolling on a course several times. A key lesson learnt has therefore been expectation management. Both university staff and refugees need to have a realistic picture of the journey ahead in order not to become too frustrated or disheartened. Therefore, key advice is to take things one step at a time and to be patient. In the future, UM would like to invest much more in support services for refugee students, so that they are less ad hoc. To achieve this, they would like to sit down with refugee students and discuss their needs with them in terms of additional institutional support services, especially for onboarding students.

Impact of Covid-19 on the institution’s diversity activities

As refugees tend to be used to face-to-face communication and physical paperwork, the fully online society, fuelled by the pandemic, has been of great difficulty. Students with a migration background, especially those that came to UM from further away, have experienced extreme loneliness during the pandemic, which the university has been trying to address by providing some online events. Students facing a language barrier have also found online teaching extremely challenging during the pandemic. The comfort of being able to use hand gestures and expressions to explain themselves has been taken away, and certain students are therefore more reluctant to speak up in class. That being said, some students have appreciated the opportunity to return to their home countries, rather than being isolated in the Netherlands, while continuing their studies at UM. In this way, the pandemic has shown the university how they can offer education across the globe.