Erasmus University’s transfer programme for refugees was launched in 2017. It doesn’t necessarily prepare participants for a degree programme at EUR, but rather for Dutch higher education in general. In the first year, a large majority of the course graduates decided to register at a university of applied sciences. VJE project leader Kevin van der Poel currently expects slightly fewer than half of the 20 participants will be able to enrol in a university programme.
According to Van der Poel, the reason why the participants don’t opt for Erasmus is the university’s Nominal=Normal rule. For the participants, this relatively strict requirement on EUR’s part – students need to earn all their scheduled credits in the first year – means that they prefer to take their chances in Leiden or Tilburg, for example. For some participants, we can’t say where they’ll be heading just yet: they still need to resit exams and can then decide to move on to a university of applied sciences or university depending on the results.
At the end of last year, Kevin van der Poel was presented with a Top Support Award, earning the title of ‘Staff Member of the Year’ for the VJE project. He remains quite modest about this acknowledgement. “Things aren’t always as great as the media make them out to be,” says Van der Poel. A number of outlets, including the dailies AD Rotterdam and de Telegraaf, have sung the programme’s praises. Moreover, transfer programmes like Erasmus Preparatory Year have been embraced as ‘best practices’ by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. Last year one of the participants was even a guest on the daytime television programme ‘Koffietijd’.
The deep end
More than anything, Van der Poel is disappointed that the participants often don’t feel comfortable with their new life as a student. “In many cases, the transfer to a university of applied sciences or a university as such isn’t a problem. But by the end of the first year, many of the participants have dropped out,” he explains. “It’s frustrating: you give them a solid foundation, but they become so unhappy over the course of the year that they quit their programme anyway.”
During the transfer year, participants often interact very little with their local surroundings. According to Van der Poel, this is a key reason why they quit their studies later on. “They only get a taste of real life in the Netherlands after the programme – when they’ve become students. They’re thrown in at the deep end. Some of them end in a corner that’s difficult to get out of.”
“For refugees, language is the main sticking point when it comes to academic success,” says Van der Poel. That’s why Dutch and English lessons are an integral part of the programme. “Even if they’ve passed the ‘civic integration exam’, language lessons are still a compulsory part of our curriculum.”
According to Van der Poel, many of the participants suffer serious social isolation. They find it difficult to connect with other people around them, since they have little in common. “This is due in part to a specific style of communication, which is very ordinary for people here but quite unusual for a Syrian, for example.” In Van der Poel’s experience, typical Dutch directness can occasionally cause friction. “The other cliché that’s often bandied about is that refugees are often late but don’t see the problem in this. If you want to make Dutch friends, I can imagine it can be a thing: people here tend to frown on that sort of behaviour.”
The classroom is hardly a bed of roses either. “There were a few times when things came to a head between female lecturers and male course participants,” remembers Van der Poel. “Within certain cultures, men are placed above women in a wide range of areas. Male participants occasionally find it very difficult to accept female lecturers’ authority.”
Based on this experience, since last year there is a new item on the programme: intercultural communication – for both participants and lecturers. Because ‘understanding needs to go both ways’. Lecturers will be given a training that teaches them how to deal with course participants from other cultures. For participants, the intercultural communication module doesn’t just deal with how you can interact with members of the other sex, but also with what kind of online profile you should make for the Dutch job market, for example.
Van der Poel believes the programme has good prospects. “Although, the Dutch government will need to be prepared to make a bigger investment in participation in the education sector, as well as cultural integration, and put a stronger focus on custom solutions. There are plans to significantly broaden the existing civic integration scheme. In 2021, we expect the government to award us a new grant that allows us to accept more participants,” continues Van der Poel. “But do we actually want this, as a small language centre?” he asks rhetorically. “I understand that as a university, one works for the public good. But can this be achieved without sacrificing quality?”
For the upcoming academic year, Van der Poel is looking for new student mentors. They will be assigned to specific participants based on their chosen degree programmes and personal interests. The mentors will be offering participants guidance and support in practical matters – e.g. how to borrow books from the library, arrange housing or fill in a registration form. And of course, practicing Dutch is part of the game too. “But what I personally find far more important is that the refugees can join in a night out or some bar-hopping: so they can get to know people; have some fun together,” says Van der Poel. “Because it’s personal interaction like this that many of the refugee students miss the most.”
Last year, Van der Poel demonstrated how effective the mentoring method can be. What kind of mentors is he looking for? “Dutch-speaking students – but more than anything, people who don’t throw in the towel too quickly,” he says. “It may not always be easy, but we’ve regularly seen the mentors and participants become friends for life.”