Welcome to Higher Education in Europe

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Welcome to Higher Education in Europe2020-01-13T15:10:26+00:00
  • Willkommen an Europas Hochschulen


This is a template containing frequently asked questions (FAQs) from refugees and migrants about the higher education system. We provide the template in eight different European languages in the download-section below. Feel free to adapt or elaborate the suggested answers based on your country’s specifications!

  • Guidelines for Higher Education staff to help migrants and refugees.

  • Download & adapt the guidelines for your purpose!

  • Share the guidelines on your institution’s website.

Welcome to Higher Education – Frequently Asked Questions

This is a preview of the FAQ template “Welcome to Higher Education” in English language. Please mind that the answers are rather general and need to be adapted to the specific processes and regulations of the country. In the download-section below you can find the FAQ template translated in eight European languages.

Is accommodation available at higher education institutions?2018-02-28T15:12:03+00:00

Very often, student halls of residence are available. There is also usually a black board with offers of private accommodation for students. At larger institutions, there may even be an office or centralised system assisting students when looking for accommodation. The institution should be contacted for further information.

Is there a Students’ Union and what support/services does it provide?2018-02-28T15:10:31+00:00

A Students’ Union is a student organization present at many higher educational institutions in Europe. Usually, the representatives are elected by the students themselves. At larger institutions, the students’ union may have its own office. It provides social activities, representation, and academic support for the students. For example, if a student feels he/she is being treated unfairly by the institution, the students’ union may provide advice. It is usually compulsory for students to join the students’ union and a small fee has to be paid.

The European Students’ Union (ESU) is the umbrella organisation of 45 National Unions of Students (NUS) from 38 countries. The aim of ESU is to represent and promote the educational, social, economic and cultural interests of students at the European level towards all relevant bodies and in particular the European Union, Bologna Follow Up Group, Council of Europe and UNESCO. Through its members, ESU represents around 15 million students in Europe. A list of its members with contact details in European countries can be found here.

How are students supported with regards to transport, health and funding?2018-02-28T15:09:20+00:00

There is no general rule on this for all European countries. In some university towns and cities, public transport may be free for students or at least available at a reduced price. The institution or students’ union should be able to provide further information.

Health insurance is generally compulsory in Europe but each country has a different system. In the European Union, citizens are entitled to the same health care as citizens insured in that country. There is a European Health Insurance Card. Health care for migrants will depend on their situation and the country they are based in.

Some countries or institutions may provide funding for refugees. Grants or loans may be available but will depend on the country/institution. See the FAQs on funding.

What are the conditions for resuming studies in the original country, if a migrant wishes to return at a later date?2018-02-28T15:02:42+00:00

If a student enters higher education in Europe and then returns to their original country, the question whether their studies in Europe would be recognised in the original country will depend on that country. The Ministry of Education of the relevant country should be contacted.

Syria: The European Union’s Education, Audiovisual and Cultural Executive Agency (EACEA) published the following Recognition of foreign qualifications in Syria in a Tempus study of the “State of Play of the Bologna Process in the Tempus Partner Countries” in April 2012:

  • Ratification of the Lisbon Recognition Convention: No
  • Recognition of Foreign Qualification for academic study: by central or regional governmental authorities
  • Recognition of Foreign Qualification for professional employment: by central or regional governmental authorities

Read more here:

http://eacea.ec.europa.eu/tempus/tools/documents/bologna2012_mapping_country_120508_v02.pdf; p. 53 (This was published in 2012 and may not be valid in future).

Are there any higher education organisations in Europe that specifically support refugees?2018-02-28T14:52:07+00:00

Yes. Some higher education institutions in Europe have special provisions for supporting refugees who would like to get (back) into higher education. This may be in the form of coaching, counselling, special bridging programmes, support with language tuition, allowing refugees to attend some classes, grants, wavering fees, etc. Some examples include:

This list is not exhaustive. The following organisations also support refugees who want to get into higher education:

  • The European Union is supporting a number of projects aimed at assisting refugees into higher education, including this VINCE Another EU co-financed project is inHERE, which aims to strengthen knowledge sharing, peer-support and academic partnership to facilitate the integration and access of refugees in European Higher Education Institutions.
  • The European Commission supports the integration of migrants and refugees in higher education. The Commission funds projects and disseminates successful practices in this field. Language skills and recognition of qualifications are key issues for these groups. It has produced a list of inspiring practices where higher education institutions are helping refugees to get into higher education. The list is the result of responses to an EU Survey launched by the European Commission on 24 September 2015 among universities and student organisations. It has been further completed following a
    workshop organised on 6 October 2015 with 25 representatives of Erasmus+ National Agencies, universities and student organisations. The aim is not to be exhaustive, but to share some practices taking place in different parts of the EU. The list can be found here.
  • Kiron is a social start-up that wants to help refugees access higher education free of charge. Kiron wants to provide a bridge for refugees or asylum seekers to continue or begin studying at a university-level. Kiron’s idea: start your studies right away with online courses and finish your Bachelor’s degree later offline at one of our partner universities.
  • The United Nations Refugee AgencyUNHCR – is committed to encouraging higher education for refugees.
  • The European University Association, EUA, is committed to enabling refugees to study at higher education institutions across Europe. Its policy statement can be read here. The Association launched a Refugees Welcome Map Campaign in December 2015 and has collected almost 250 initiatives from higher education institutions and related organisations in 31 countries. Click on the interactive map to find details of the initiatives at the various institutions around the world.
  • The European Students Union has published a report on initiatives in a selection of European countries.
  • In Germany, DAAD, the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst/German Academic Exchange Service supports refugees who want access to higher education.
  • In the Netherlands, UAF helps refugees who want to pursue higher education. Nuffic, the Dutch organisation for internationalisation in education also has advice for refugees who want to enrol in higher education.
  • In Denmark, there is an initiative to help refugees gain access to higher education by a cooperation between the Danish National Union of Students, Students Support Refugees, Social Science Across Borders and Student House Copenhagen.
  • In France, there is a network called RESOME. This is neither a governmental institution nor a university but a group composed of students, teachers, and people supportive of migrants and refugees, working alongside them to grant everyone access to French classes and the possibility to resume their studies in France.
    There is another official network in France coordinated by Mathieu Schneider, vice-rector for culture, sciences and society at Université de Strasbourg. This Network is called MEnS (Migrants inclusion in Higher education). Its goal is to provide comprehensive support to migrants who want to access to French higher education. French universities collaborate within this network and are divided into different working groups:

    • French as a foreign language courses
    • Recognition of prior learning, recognition of diploma and certificate of equivalence
    • Funding of specific programme to support migrants.

Emergency reception for scientists in exile provides information (how to study in France, how to register at a university, learn French, specific support) for refugees or asylum seekers who would like to begin or resume their studies.

What is the system of payment/fees?2018-02-28T14:50:33+00:00

The European higher education system is largely based on public funding and fees are often comparatively low (compared with the USA) or even non-existent. In some countries, a distinction is made between EU citizens and non-EU citizens. In Austria and Germany, there are currently no student fees at the state universities, but universities of applied sciences in the federal states may charge student fees. In the UK, on the other hand, student fees are currently typically £ 9,000 per year for EU students. Prospective students should check directly with the institution they wish to apply to. In addition, accommodation and living costs, books, scripts, transport, etc. should also be considered.

The United Nations Refugee AgencyUNHCR – is committed to encouraging higher education for refugees. In the past 25 years, it has helped over 2,300 refugees financially to study at higher education institutions with the aid of scholarships. The programme is called “DAFI”.

For refugees studying and living in Germany, DAAD, the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst/German Academic Exchange Service provides information on missing documentation, funding, admission to German universities and more.

Some higher education institutions make special financial concessions to refugees studying at their institutions. Please refer to the FAQ “Are there any higher education organisations in Europe that specifically support refugees?”.

What if the required documents are not available?2018-06-27T15:20:37+00:00

There is no general rule on this for all European countries but most will recognise that under certain circumstances (e.g. fleeing a country) documents will not be available. In fact, Article VII of the Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education in the European Region of the 1997 Lisbon Treaty of the Council of Europe, it is stated:

“Each Party shall take all feasible and reasonable steps within the framework of its education system and in conformity with its constitutional, legal, and regulatory provisions to develop procedures designed to assess fairly and expeditiously whether refugees, displaced persons and persons in a refugee-like situation fulfil the relevant requirements for access to higher education, to further higher education programmes or to employment activities, even in cases in which the qualifications obtained in one of the Parties cannot be proven through documentary evidence.”

Most countries/institutions offer some kind of validation procedure where prior learning is verified/recognised. Please refer to the “Welcome to Validation” guidelines for more information on validation.

Enic-naric gives advice to institutions faced with the issue of refugees without documentation applying to study at their institution. This includes guidelines for setting up a process to ensure that refuges are treated fairly.

What documents are needed to enrol in higher education?2018-02-28T14:46:27+00:00

This will depend on the country and institution but may include certificates for formal qualifications, birth certificate, certificate of registration in the country, copy of passport/visa, health certificate.

Enic-naric provides information by country here.

How can I make my higher education qualifications officially valid/recognised?2018-02-28T14:37:14+00:00

This is generally known as “validation”. “VNIL” refers to the Validation of Non-formal and Informal Learning; “VPL” to the Validation of Prior Learning. In other words, not only formal qualifications may be recognised to get a place in higher education.

In Europe, it is possible to have higher education qualifications from non-European countries recognised, or validated. However, whilst there are a number of European initiatives, supported by both the European Union and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the procedures will differ from country to country. Please check the “Welcome to Validation” guidelines for further information.

General information on academic recognition procedures as well as information by country is provided by the enic-naric organisation. The ENIC Network (European Network of National Information Centres on academic recognition and mobility) was established by the Council of Europe and UNESCO. The ENIC Network cooperates closely with the NARIC Network of the European Union. To access their information on academic recognition procedures, click here.

Which different study areas are available?2018-02-28T14:30:39+00:00

This will depend on the country and institution. A useful starting point is “Study in Europe” or “StudyLink”. “Top Universities” and “The Times Higher Education” are also useful resources.

Is it possible to get a student visa?2018-02-28T14:29:26+00:00

All students who do not hold a European passport need to apply for a so-called Schengen visa. “Schengen” refers to an area in Europe comprising of 22 EU countries and 4 non-EU countries which have abolished passport and border controls. For information on visas for the Schengen Area, click here. For visas outside the Schengen Area, the responsible ministry in the country concerned should be contacted.

Are there any entry restrictions to higher education?2018-02-28T14:23:50+00:00

Traditionally, higher education institutions required formal school leaving certificates to attend their courses. Although the school leaving examinations, usually taken at the age of 17-19 or at adult education centres, are still an accepted gateway to higher education, institutions are becoming more flexible and informal as well as formal learning is often accepted. Prior learning – whether formal or informal – may be accepted too.

There are no discriminatory restrictions to students entering higher education such as religion, political beliefs, gender, sexual orientation, etc. However, overseas students may need to obtain a visa. Please refer to the separate FAQ about this.

Special provisions are usually made for students with disabilities but the institution itself should be consulted about this.

Some countries (e.g. Germany, UK) have an “elite” university system, whereby students need to obtain certain grades to get into certain universities.

A further barrier may be funding. Please refer to the question “what is the system of payment/fees”.

What are the general admission procedures to higher education?2018-06-27T15:16:42+00:00

This differs not only from country to country but also from institution to institution. Some countries, like the UK, have a centralised system of applying to universities whereas in others, for example in Austria, students apply to individual institutions, whereby there may be written examinations, interviews or acceptance based on previous qualifications.

A good starting point is the “Study in Europe” website, which provides a general overview of courses, how to apply, and fees. Wikipedia also provides an overview per country – click here.

Note that in recent years efforts are being made in many European countries to encourage more mature adults to study, even if they do not have formal school leaving qualifications. Please check the “Welcome to Validation” guidelines for more information.

How is the education system leading to tertiary education organised in Europe?2018-02-28T13:26:42+00:00

Most children in European countries start compulsory education between the ages of four and six and continue until they are 15 – 19. This is regulated by each country individually.

Each country has its own system of secondary education and admission requirements to higher education. Each country is free to set the level of secondary education future students need for university admission. Prospective students should check the country regulations and/or institution for further information.

You can find an overview by the European Union about entry to higher education in the member states here. Enic-Naric also provides information by country (click on the country on the right).

Wikipedia also provides an overview on education by country – click here.

How do qualifications from migrants’ countries compare to European ones?2018-02-28T13:27:02+00:00

Basically, the system of higher education is similar in Europe to the systems in Syria and Iraq. Bachelor’s degrees tend to take three – four years and master’s degrees one to two years in all countries, depending on the subject.

In the following table a brief comparison of academic degrees is given based on information provided by the Kultusministerkonferenz – Zentralstelle für ausländisches Bildungswesen, Bonn, Germany:

Comparison of academic degrees

Comparison of academic degrees

*The name of the school leaving exams and/or examination for university admission differ from country to country in Europe. For example, pupils in the UK take “A” levels; in France pupils going on to university need a Baccalauréat, in Germany Abitur, in Austria Matura

  • More information on higher education in Syria can be found here.
  • More information on higher education in Afghanistan can be found here.
  • More information on higher education in Iraq can be found here.
  • More information on education in Nigeria can be found here.
  • More information on education in Sudan can be found here.
  • More information on education in Iran can be found here.

Nuffic is a Dutch organisation for internationalisation in education and provides comprehensive information (in English and Dutch) about qualifications in a variety of countries, comparing them to the Dutch system, including Syria (December 2015), Afghanistan (November 2015), Iraq (January 2015), Nigeria (May 2017) and Iran (August 2015) . The documents include examples of certificates and diplomas.

What are the different types of higher education institutions in Europe? Are they all officially recognised?2018-02-28T13:27:34+00:00

There are four main types of higher educational institutions in Europe:

  • Universities (state and private) – some offering a variety of different courses, some may be specialised (e.g. in medicine, law, business, etc.)
  • Universities of Applied Sciences (state and private; these institutions usually have more practical courses than the more traditional universities)
  • Teacher Training Colleges
  • Academies and colleges specialising in particular fields.

To find out whether the institution is officially recognised, the ministry of education in the country is a good starting point. Enic-Naric, a joint initiative of the European Commission, the Council of Europe and UNESCO providing information on recognising academic and professional qualifications, provides further information and a list of countries – click here.

The European Tertiary Education Register (ETER) is a database of higher education institutions in Europe and can be found here.

The European University Association (EUA) is the representative organisation of universities and national rectors’ conferences in 47 European countries. The EUA plays a crucial role in the Bologna Process and in influencing EU policies on higher education, research and innovation. The association actively supports refugee students and academics.

How does the European higher education system work?2018-02-28T13:27:56+00:00

Traditionally, students usually started their studies in Europe at the age of about 18, having completed primary and secondary education. To be admitted to higher education institutions, or tertiary education or post-secondary education as this is also known, students had to pass examinations. The examinations themselves as well as the admission procedure differed – and to a certain extent still do differ – from country to country. The system of higher education itself also differed in each country, with the level, lengths of courses, types of courses, academic titles, etc. varying according to historical traditions.

In recent years, there have been two major changes affecting the higher education system in Europe, the Bologna Process and Lifelong Learning (LLL):


The Bologna Process

The so-called Bologna Process was introduced to harmonise higher education in Europe. The process was named after the University of Bologna in Italy, where the Bologna declaration was signed by education ministers from 29 European countries in 1999.

The Bologna Process provides a three-level system of higher education in most European countries:

  • The first (lowest) level is a bachelor’s degree, typically lasting three to four years.
  • The second level is a master’s degree, typically lasting one to two years.
  • The final level is a doctorate (PhD) which is usually quite specialised and may last between two and five years.

The title of the degree, e.g. Bachelor of Arts, abbreviated to BA, or a Master of Science, abbreviated to MSc, is placed after the holder’s name. Someone holding a doctorate is usually called “Dr”.

The advantages of this system are that it is now easier to use qualifications from one European country to apply for a job or a course in another. Increased compatibility between education systems makes it easier for students and job seekers to move within Europe. At the same time, the Bologna reforms help to make European universities and colleges more competitive and attractive to the rest of the world.

ECTS System

The system also recognises a grading system called the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System or ECTS. One academic year corresponds to 60 ECTS credits that are normally equivalent to 1500–1800 hours of total workload enabling the transfer and progression throughout the European Union.

More Information

More information about the Bologna system can be found here. Some higher education institutions in Europe also offer diploma courses in various subjects with less ECTS than for degree courses.


Lifelong Learning

It has been recognised that learning should not only concern young people in educational institutions but is something that can affect everyone, at all stages in life and not only at the traditional educational institutions. In European Higher Education, supported by the European Union, this means that not only young people who passed university entrance exams now study at higher education institutions. There is a trend towards more mature students studying, part-time courses, students studying at universities without the traditional examination requirements and a variety of teaching methods.

Differences within the EU

Please note that although a lot has happened in Higher Education in Europe in recent years as mentioned above, there are still differences between the countries and changes are still occurring. Each country is adopting these principals slightly differently and national regulations should be checked.

More Information

More information about Lifelong Learning in the EU can be found here.


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