“The right to education is a human right,” Gabriela Lüthi, a director of VSS, told the media in a press conference. “That’s why study should be available to everyone who has the interest and the capabilities”.
Many refugees have pursued or finished tertiary studies in their home country before arriving in Switzerland but slip through the net when they arrive here, said project coordinator Martina von Arx.
Their foreign qualifications do not qualify them to access the Swiss job market; rather, they must pursue a recognized Swiss university course or training, she said.
However currently numerous obstacles make it difficult for young refugees to study in Switzerland.
Universities demand that refugees speak the local language to C1 level, even though Swiss students from a different linguistic region are only required to speak the local language to the lower B1 or B2 level, said VSS in a press conference.
Often, refugees’ linguistic knowledge is not taken account when they are allocated to a canton, added von Arx – meaning a French speaker could be sent to live in a German-speaking canton.
“That leads to problems that could have been avoided. It is crucial to change that,” she said.
What’s more, social services will only fund refugees for language courses up to A2 or B1 level, and most refugees do not have the money to fund further study.
That also applies to the Swiss university entrance exam, added the VSS. If a person without the Swiss maturité (the high school diploma) wants to study here they must either have a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree that is recognised in Switzerland or they must pass an entrance exam equivalent to the Swiss high school diploma.
Until 2011 preparatory courses for this entrance examination were paid for by a foundation. Since its dissolution students must now take private courses which can cost up to 20,000 francs for a year’s study, a sum impossible for most refugees – and many other foreign students – to pay.
VSS is calling for publicly-funded courses to be reintroduced, saying that economics should not dictate access to education.
“Using this type of selection process in a society that needs qualified personnel and wants above all to promote lasting integration makes no sense,” said VSS project coordinator Martina von Arx.
The organization is also calling for grants to be made available for refugees to cover the costs of living whilst studying – and that those grants should be available not just to recognized refugees but to those who have provisional refugee status.
“If our integration system isn’t prepared to support refugees having already studied or having an interest in studying, we are wasting potential and missing a chance to train much needed qualified workers,” she added.
The organization’s stance was welcomed by Swiss universities, with Michael Hengartner, the rector of Zurich University and president of Swissuniversities, saying higher education institutions were currently offering different measures for potential refugee students.
Indeed, since 2015 universities have agreed in principle to accept refugees and several are offering schemes where refugees can sit in on classes, for free.
The University of Geneva’s ‘Horizon Academique’ scheme welcomed 35 refugee students in this way last September.
But this does not go far enough, feels VSS.
“These projects are good and especially promote linguistic education,” Lüthi told the media. “But they are not enough”.