Utrecht University (UU)

Linking refugees to the diversity strategy

Utrecht University (UU) has a dedicated Equality, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI) Strategy and Action Plan in place for 2021 to 2025, directly linking to the overarching strategy of Utrecht University. In it, values such as equality, diversity, inclusion, accessibility and mutual respect are formulated as important points of departure for all the university’s activities. The EDI Strategy and Action Plan makes specific reference to refugees. It aims to develop and provide training and work experience places for refugees with and without residence status, and to generally raise awareness about EDI. Emphasis is put on collaboration with the municipality.

Definition of the target group

Legally, the university cannot collect information on the background of its students or staff. The term refugee is used in the broadest sense possible in the university’s support programme Incluusion. This programme especially targets those currently waiting for their refugee status application to be processed, but it is also open to people with a refugee status and rejected asylum seekers. As part of the application process for following a Bachelor’s course, potential students with a refugee background are asked to self-declare their status, but no proof is required. However, for traineeships, only those with refugee status and who are receiving benefits from the municipality can apply.

History of the diversity strategy

The EDI strategy and its link to refugee inclusion were driven by two projects. The Incluusion programme started as a PhD volunteer project in 2015, asking teaching staff to set up an extra chair in their classes for refugee guest students. Initially, it had no dedicated funding, but rather, funds for other areas were re-allocated for the salaries of part-time support staff, and donations were used to pay for travel costs. In parallel, a task force for diversity was set up, initially with a focus on outreach to non-traditional students and employees. Over time, the institution’s refugee activities were also linked in. The task force was the basis for the institution’s EDI Office, established in 2021.

Activities and services for refugees and asylum seekers

Through the Incluusion programme the university offers newcomers with a refugee(-like) background the chance to participate as guest students in a range of courses offered by UU and the University of Humanistic Studies. Language training is offered in collaboration with the English Academy for Newcomers (EAN). In addition, a buddy programme links each refugee student to two local students, who offer support on cultural and academic aspects as well as helping with social integration. A pilot for traineeships for refugees offers unpaid six-month work placements at the university, with potential follow-up employment. The university collaborates with the municipality to ensure that there is no cut in benefits due to the employment status of their interns. The trainees receive training in the Dutch language, professional development, and intercultural awareness. So far, five trainees have taken part in the traineeships and three have received a work contract. The university is also involved in pilot projects on the recognition of qualifications held by refugees in the absence of formal proof of qualifications, in line with Article VII of the Lisbon Recognition Convention (LRC).

Implementation and monitoring

The EDI Office is an overarching office, heavily involved in the different programmes related to equality, inclusion and diversity throughout the university. The office aims to take a bottom-up approach, and many of the concrete tasks are actually carried out by other parts of the university, often in collaboration with various faculties and offices. As the office has only recently been established, its approach is still being formalised. The Incluusion programme is part of the Human Resources office. There are also other projects related to refugee inclusion across the institution, e.g. the ARENA project with the Admissions office. Furthermore, the project manager of Incluusion is also the primary representative of UU for the Scholars at Risk network. It is estimated that (apart from Incluusion students) there are about 20 students with a refugee background fully enrolled in the university. Due to the legal limitations on collecting information on the background of students, there is only anecdotal evidence available on these refugee students at the university. Incluusion itself had about 550 students overall, 30% of whom dropped out. Their progress beyond the programme and whether they proceeded with their studies has not been tracked so far. During the summer of 2021, the results of a survey from former Incluusion students are expected to be published. The programme will be evaluated based on this survey. As from the 2021-2022 academic year, all students will receive a survey at the end of their course, so Incluusion can keep better track of where they go next and why.

Challenges and ways to overcome them

Funding has been a key issue making it hard to set up teams to support refugees and to address overarching diversity issues. The recent establishment of the EDI Office is a clear statement that the university believes that diversity and inclusion is important and that a diverse student and employee population, including refugees, is something worth striving for. Dropouts are high amongst Incluusion students, but comparable to the dropout rates at other universities with similar programmes. A lot of these dropouts are unavoidable, with refugees suddenly busy with their procedure and having to focus on that. However, some dropouts may be linked to the language barrier and differences in the education system. Further evidence needs to be collected, and additional support measures may need to be offered, such as preparatory classes or an academic refugee support network. Looking ahead, more focus needs to be placed on making it possible for refugees to continue their initial experience at UU by signing up for a full degree programme.

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

With Covid-19 and the move to online classes, it has been a stressful year for teaching staff. However, there has been no overall impact on the interest to support refugees by UU teachers. The move online on the one hand made the Incluusion programme more accessible, as it involves refugee students from the entire country, usually with high travel costs involved. On the other hand, the social and community aspects of the programme are completely lacking in an online classroom.