University of Barcelona (UB)

Linking refugees to the diversity strategy

According to the University of Barcelona’s Strategic Plan 2030, it is “strongly committed to society and wants to assume its social responsibility by contributing to the improvement of living conditions and the level of cohesion and social inclusion, both in the community in which it is located and in the rest of the world.” In particular, the strategic plan aims to promote proximity between members of different cultures and to support the inclusion of vulnerable and underrepresented groups, including refugees. The strategy is aligned with the UNHCR and the OECD’s complementary pathways to resettlement in third countries, the Global Compact for Refugees and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Diversity and inclusion in a European University initiative

The development of these actions has had an important impact at the CHARM-EU structural level, but will also impact the institutions that come together under it.

Definition of the target group

Different programmes target the inclusion of people with a refugee(-like) background as well as under-represented and vulnerable groups under the university’s diversity activities. The university’s Social Policy Program and Access to the University (PSAU) targets students with a low socio-economic background, Spanish students, students born in Spain to foreign parents with or without Spanish nationality and foreign students. On the other hand, the university’s Refugee Programme is open to recognised asylum seekers, refugees and people with a refugee(-like) background. Applications from students with a refugee(-like) background are considered on a case-by-case basis. There are synergies between the two programmes, such as the joint development of mentorship programmes.

History of the diversity strategy

In 2005, UB’s delegate commission for sustainability and accessibility drafted a document called “Diversity and Accessibility to the UB,” leading to the creation of the PSAU several years later. Adopting an inclusive approach, the aim of the PSAU was, and still is, to promote access to vulnerable groups, among which there are migrants with a low socio-economic background and second-generation migrants. In a more targeted approach, the University of Barcelona’s Solidarity Foundation (FSUB) was entrusted with the coordination of the Refugee Programme in 2015, and this marked the beginning of the design and implementation of strategies for the academic and social inclusion of refugees.

Services and activities available to refugees and migrants

The following services are offered as part of the university’s PSAU, within the framework of the Prometeus programme, an initiative supported by Barcelona City Council which promotes the access of low-income students to higher education:
  • Follow-up of the achievements and needs of Prometeus students.
The following services are offered as part of the Refugee Programme:
  • A transition course to the university specifically targeting refugees who are outside the EU and wish to study at UB, with 15 places each edition, co-financed by the Barcelona City Council. The course focuses on Spanish, Catalan, human rights as well as knowledge of the social, economic and cultural environment;
  • Tutorial action plans and permanent academic monitoring for refugees;
  • Scholarships for refugees exempting them from tuition fees for undergraduate and Master’s degrees;
  • A comprehensive scholarship for those following the university’s extension course, which covers accommodation, maintenance, as well as permanent psychosocial support;
  • Coordinating actions with local entities such as public administration, NGOs, and enterprises to promote the inclusion of refugees in the labour market, such as an internship programme with Nestlé;
  • CV and interview clinics in coordination with the student service;
  • A protocol for the recognition of prior knowledge;
  • Legal advice;
  • Awareness-raising actions for the general population and the university community focusing on the origin, causes and consequences of the forced movement of people.

Coordination, implementation and monitoring

The FSUB is made up of two people who are tasked with designing and implementing the Refugee Programme. Psychological support services are coordinated with the Faculty of Psychology and with the PSAU, with their monitoring and evaluation being coordinated by the FSUB. Social inclusion activities are carried out by the FSUB, including peer-to-peer activities and volunteering, with the Student Residence organising various activities that support the social inclusion of the students participating in the Refugee Programme. Other activities, such as those related to  access to financial aid, job pools, recognition of prior studies, and access to Spanish training courses are coordinated with the dedicated vice-rectorates, areas and services of UB and the FSUB. The UB Refugee Programme has the support of three main municipalities: Barcelona City Council has supported the programme since 2016, co-funding the transition course to the university. The municipalities of L’Hospitalet de Llobregat and Viladecans support the programme with specific financial assistance for the accommodation of those who leave the university residence, thereby aiding the social inclusion of students.


UB has assisted more than 200 people since 2015. A total of 43 people have participated in the last three transition courses, mostly from Syria, and to a lesser extent from Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Men make up 65% of those participating in these courses and women 35%. The average age is 27. There is a high completion rate, with 89% of those starting the transition course finishing it. In terms of success rates, 97% have achieved a language level of B1-B2 in both Spanish and Catalan, as well as a knowledge of the cultural, social and economic environment. However, 22% of the students do not join the educational system after this course, either because they return to their country of origin due to the improvement in the security situation, or because of the uncertainty generated by the administrative situation. In terms of courses, students who pursue further studies mainly opt for Master’s studies (69%), undergraduate studies (21%), and to a much lesser extent vocational training courses (10%). Since 2018, almost 30 tuition fees exemptions have been granted for refugee students already living in Barcelona. These students come from Syria, as well as El Salvador, Colombia, Venezuela, Egypt, the Russian Federation and Ukraine.

Challenges, lessons learnt and strategies to overcome them

The consolidation and expansion of support by public administration is a priority for the development of the Refugee Programme’s actions. At local level, the challenge is to expand the participation of city councils in the field of socio-educational inclusion, such as accommodation, as well as to explore more areas of collaboration, namely the training of administration staff in refugee topics. As for national level administration, the need for collaboration in the granting of study visas and, once in the territory, the renewal of documentation should be highlighted. The Conference of Rectors of Universities (CRUE) is a workspace with great potential in which universities can exchange experiences and in which relationship frameworks can be established for the incorporation and replicability of the model. This could be a great mechanism for overcoming many challenges related to the integration of refugees in Spanish universities, such as visa granting processes.

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

The pandemic has had a profound effect on those assisting refugee students, in particular the teaching staff, who had no specific training in virtual teaching methodologies before the outbreak. Information, advice and legal consultation processes were paralysed, with documentation renewal processes also slowing down. Due to the restrictions, refugee students could not take part in volunteering activities and the level and degree of support is not comparable to previous years, with many refugee students suffering due to the reduction in social interrelationships. Undoubtedly, the Covid-19 pandemic has reinforced the need to articulate coordinated strategies for educational inclusion aimed at both refugees and people with low socio-economic situations.