After rounding off his History of Society master programme in 2015, Kevin van der Poel (35) originally had difficulty finding the right job. “Fortunately, I was able to start working for Erasmus University via its trainee programme. Originally, the idea was that I would work in as many different departments as possible over the course of two years. But it didn’t take long before I set up as ‘quartermaster’ for what would later become the Erasmus Preparatory Year,” – a programme that prepares refugees for enrolment in a Dutch higher education programme.

Van der Poel spent several years travelling as a secondary school pupil and student (“I went to Asia to have fun, and then worked in Australia after running out of money”). During his travels, he saw first-hand what kind of issues can develop in the wake of migration: “I was in North Thailand for a while, and there you have a lot of problems with mountain peoples who are neither Thai nor Burmese. They are repeatedly driven across the border by the army. And still, they need to settle down somewhere too.” This experience roused his interest in the theme of migration.

Refugees in the sports hall

During the Preparatory Year, students make various cultural trips, such as to the Mauritshuis.

The idea of an Erasmus Preparatory Year was hatched in 2015, the peak of the refugee crisis in Europe, when refugees were even offered temporary shelter in the hall of Erasmus Sport. “The university had set up a refugee task force, which was chaired by Dick Douwes, the then dean of ESHCC. I knew him from when I was a student, so it made sense for me to join the team. And I already had a strong interest in migration at the time.”

According to Van der Poel, the task force was ‘very dedicated’ when it came to determining what the university could do for refugees. But members like Douwes simply lacked the hours to put into this work. Van der Poel, on the other hand, had plenty of time, and before long he could be found knocking on the doors of faculties, the Foundation for Refugee Students UAF and various municipal services in Rotterdam. He also set up a partnership with Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences. The first sixteen refugees started on the Erasmus Preparatory Year 18 months ago, during the 2017-2018 academic year.

Heated discussions

This year a new batch of students has set to work: a group of 20 refugees from, among other countries, Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Turkey. The programme helps them increase their proficiency in Dutch, English and maths. While they are doing ‘very well’ according to Van der Poel, the classes are far from uneventful: “They come from very different backgrounds. Most of the Iranians and Kurd are Christians, while the Iraqis and Syrians are Muslim. This occasionally gives rise to heated theological discussions.”

And occasionally, a student finds it difficult to accept a lecturer’s authority – particularly in the case of female staff. “On the one hand, you need to make it clear to these students that they will have to come round. But at the same time, you have to be aware of certain aspects of intercultural communication. In many cultures, people aren’t used to being as direct as we are in the Netherlands. We need to raise awareness of this among our lecturers.”

Win-win situation

Kevin van der Poel. Image credit: Michelle Muus

According to Van der Poel, so far the results of the Preparatory Year are ‘highly successful’. “A lot of universities have since set up a similar programme. Across the Netherlands, some 60 percent of our participants move on to a university of applied sciences or research university. Last year twelve of the sixteen students have graduated, incidentally with most of the participants enrolling in the Hogeschool Rotterdam. Three of the remaining four are still going for a resit. That’s a huge result, actually: don’t forget that as much as 96 percent of the refugees with a residence permit are on welfare.” A win-win situation, in other words: the refugees gain better prospects, while municipalities like Rotterdam save money that would otherwise be spent on welfare.

Unrealistic expectations

One thing that does frustrate Van der Poel is having to say ‘no’ quite often. Every year, some 200 refugees apply for the programme, but they only have a budget for 16 participants. He is directly involved in the relatively complicated selection process. “I pay close attention to their job prospects, among other things, and whether they are realistic about their study choices.” There are a lot of dropouts in refugee transfer programmes: only 36 percent ultimately obtain an academic or higher professional education level degree. “To a large extent, this has to do with unrealistic expectations. For example, I would advise against very language-oriented programmes like Law.”

In addition, Van der Poel tries to preserve some balance in the gender ratio during the transfer programme (it currently stands at around 60% men-40% women), but this can be challenging. “We often have to reject female applicants due to their attitude. It’s something of a problem if you bring your father along to the intake interview and don’t want to look me in the eye. Not just for your job prospects, but also for your studies.” Women aren’t automatically turned away because they don’t want to shake hands with a man or look them in the eye. “But I do want to get the feeling that they’re willing to reflect on that kind of thing. There’s not much left to discuss if they take a huge stance on the subject.”

Bright future

The Erasmus Preparatory Year has a bright future, according to Van der Poel. “As far as I’m concerned, we should also accept students who don’t have a refugee status. This isn’t possible yet within the current funding.” Right now, the main external funder for the scheme is the UAF, but this organisation only focuses on refugees. “But there are a lot of highly qualified immigrants who currently aren’t eligible. For example, some Syrians haven’t been given refugee status because they first lived in Turkey for a while. And we can see more and more Turkish citizens coming in who are on the run from Erdogan.” He is already discussing a possible expansion of the programme with the municipality of Rotterdam. He’s very optimistic: “When 96 percent of the refugees are stuck on welfare, no one benefits.” He suspects the expanded programme could be launched as early as 2020.

Top Support Award

Van der Poel’s contribution to the programme’s successful development is the main reason why EUR presented him with this year’s Top Service Award. “I’m aware that this programme offers an appealing opportunity for the university to distinguish itself,” is how he puts it with some modesty. “Although I would have preferred to win the team award, because I didn’t do it on my own. Apart from my immediate colleagues Reem Saad and Marjon Menten of the Language & Training Centre, the programme also relies on the contributions of professors and researchers from Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication (ESHCC), for example.” The team award was presented to the web team of Erasmus School of Behavioural Sciences for their work in setting up Canvas, a digital learning environment for students.