In the Waiting Rooms of Academia

In the Waiting Rooms of Academia

- in Feature story
Alaa has a Bachelor’s degree in media. What he wants to do the most is keep studying. But before he can do that he has to take complementary courses for more than a year. Photo: Lukas J Herbers.

Highly educated refugees have a natural path into Swedish society through academia – but when their previous education is to be validated, bureaucracy gets in the way. There are currently thousands of people waiting around in the antechamber of academia, while the University seeks a sustainable solution.

Early afternoon in Lund. A soft rain falls outside, and Alaas black, cropped hair is moist from his walk to the Centre for Languages and Literature. We are sitting at a table in one of the more scarcely populated areas of the faculty. Coming here, we passed by one of the classrooms where there was a lecture with the University’s journalist students. Alaa glances at the students having deep discussions at the tables next to us.

A few years ago, he completed his Bachelor’s programme in media at Damascus University in Syria. Alaa has been on the run from his home country since 2012 and is one of many refugees with an academic background to arrive in Sweden in the latest years. People who now fight to get into the labour market or resume their studies. But it is a long road to travel.

When the war began in Syria, Alaa first fled to Egypt and then to Turkey. But since Alaa and his family did not get a residence permit there, Alaa moved on to Sweden by the end of 2013.

At first, Alaa hoped that his degree would secure him a job in his new home, but he soon realized that he would be forced to keep studying in order to get a job to match his level of education here.

Alaa has a Bachelor’s degree in English. But in the educational system of Syria, there is not as much English in elementary school as there is in Sweden. So in order to validate his Bachelor’s degree, he had to raise his language proficiency significantly. But before he could do that, he had to get through his Swedish studies.

“In other words, it would take more than a year for me to start my studies again”, Alaa says with indignation.

Waiting is almost the only thing Alaa does these days. For reuniting with his family and starting his real life here in Sweden. But what he wants to the most is to join the groups of students surrounding us.

“But it will take some time before that happens. I wish that my Swedish classes weren’t so mixed, that I could study Swedish with other academics at the University. Everything is moving so slowly now”, he says.

Being accepted into higher education as a newly arrived person is mixed with quite a lot of inconvenience. The main problem is that Sweden is part of the so called Bologna Process, an agreement within Europe stating that all Member States shall have the same rules and standards within academia. There is a vast difference here to how the university systems work in Syria and Iraq, for example. But there are more specific problems.

One such problem is that many countries not part of the Bologna Process do not require their students to write an essay in order to complete their degree. People who want to use their Bachelor’s degrees to apply for a Master’s in Sweden, but do not have an essay, will run into problems. Another problem is translating degree certificates. Arbetsförmedlingen utilizes translation agencies to translate the diplomas, and in some cases, pure happenstance can determine how many ECTS credits and study terms are in the translations.

Concerning the issue of how Swedish seats of learning have decided to assess if foreign students have the right qualifications for a programme, there is great variation between one seat of learning and the next. In practice, validation work is split between the seats of learning and the Swedish Council for Higher Education. The seats of learning decide whether students without complete documentation have the right prior knowledge to enter a programme, and the Council issue assessments of foreign degree certificates.

In the harbour district of Malmö, May is sitting in a bright red armchair and peering out through a landscape window. The sky outside is violet.

May was, just like Alaa, born in Syria. Her father was a professor at the Damascus University. Heading down the academic path was not something she thought long and hard over. She entered a Bachelor’s programme in English and kept going straight for a Master’s degree in Public Administration.

When the civil war began, May fled together with her husband and their triplets to Lebanon. They were in luck and could reach Sweden as quota refugee. When she had arrived in Sweden and had got through her Swedish courses, the next choice came naturally. She wanted a Swedish university degree. But this is where the problems began.

May applied for a Master’s programme in children’s literature at Linköping University. But when they went to check before the start of the semester, hers and her husband Hazem’s applications had been refused, despite the fact that they had their validated degree certifications and the right grades. Angry and upset, she went to the university with her husband, but no one wanted to help them. Later, when she logged onto, she could see that her application had changed from “not approved” to “not qualified”.

“That is even harder to argue against”, May Samhouri says.

May and Hazem had had their degrees validated by the Swedish Council for Higher Education, but were still both cut from their applications. And that was after waiting one and a half year for their validation.

May has previously worked as an English interpreter in Syria. When she read her degree certificate, which had been translated from Arabic into English by a translation agency, she discovered tons of errors.

Her certificate stated that she was in the third class to study at the new institute, but the translator interpreted that as if May had only been studying for a year. Therefore, her application was also removed when she applied to Lund University. May called Arbetsförmedlingen again and again, but nothing happened.

A thought occurred to May that she had never had before: “To hell with university”. If this was the way it would be, she would have to go at it without an education. But then everything changed.

Hazem discovered that there was a university college in Malmö and told May to apply. Just to try it. So she applied – and was accepted. Unlike Lund and Linköping University, who did not want to talk to her, Malmö University was accommodating, and as soon as she had explained her predicament, the situation was quickly resolved.

“I was surprised at how easy it was”, May says.

And maybe it is not a coincidence that Malmö University was where it turned around. The day after the pictures of five-year-old Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body was broadcasted last autumn, the university management was called to a meeting to decide what the school could do to help refugees.

Since then, Malmö University has seen it as one of their top priority to help newly arrived asylum seekers to find a place in Sweden. The university has, among other things, started language cafés to help unaccompanied refugee children, open lectures and access to the university library for newly arrived academics.

One of the driving forces behind Malmö University’s work for asylum seekers is its Pro Vice-Chancellor, Cecilia Christersson. She holds that the Swedish validation system should be changed to simplify matters for foreign academics who want to enter the Swedish university world. Among other things, she thinks that the language requirements for newly arrived academics should be loosened, and that there should be alternative ways to complement degree certificates for students with Bachelor’s degrees.

“It is important that the people who come here are given an opportunity to do something meaningful as soon as possible, and that is why this is such a problem. That there are so many obstacles before they can begin their studies”, she says.

Malmö University has initiated open lectures and access to the university library for newly arrived academics. Photo: Lukas J Herbers.
Malmö University has initiated open lectures and access to the university library for newly arrived academics. Photo: Lukas J Herbers.

Formally speaking, the Swedish seats of learning have no responsibility to validate a student’s competences. However, it is the responsibility of universities’ and university colleges’ to offer complementing programmes for those academics who have to build on their degrees either to proceed with their studies or get into the labour market. Until recently, this has not been a particularly prioritized issue at the seats of learning. In 2014, Lundagård reported that Lund University had cancelled their one and only complementing programme (for nurse students).

The question of how the seats of learning should best help newly arrived academic has, however, been more debated as the reception of refugees has increased. The Swedish National Union of Students and SACO have, among other things, wished for a simpler validation of the merits of newly arrived students.

In the last years, several new establishment projects have also been initiated. “Korta vägen” – a cooperation between several seats of learning, Folkuniversitetet and Arbetsförmedlingen – is one of these, where a group of newly arrived are given the opportunity to do things such as study Swedish, civics and are offered internships to match their educational backgrounds.

Together with the Swedish Agency for Economic and Regional Growth, Region Skåne has also started a project under which Arbetsförmedlingen buy student spots for complementing programmes for foreign teachers and engineers at Lund University and Malmö University.

Sara Virkelyst works as project manager in the management of Lund University and has special responsibility for these issues. According to her, much work is going on at a regional as well as national level to investigate how validation should best be conducted in the future.

“We at Lund University have, together with Region Skåne, the Migration Agency, Arbetsförmedlingen, Lärosäten Syd and the County Administrative Board, started a process mapping in order to see how we should cooperate when it comes to newly arrived academics”, Sara Virkelyst says.

She points out that there are very many steps that foreign academics have to get through in order to start studying.

“We really do not know how it looks in that area, if there are any steps we could remove, and we have to re-evaluate what demands we have put up. And if there are any steps in the process were people fall between the cracks”, she says.

Frédèrique Granath is student counsellor at Lund University. In her office at the Centre for Languages and Literature, she has recently met with more and more refugees with university degrees who are struggling to get into the Swedish university machine. Many come with incomplete documentation, as it is when you leave your home country running. Frédèrique helps as much as she can, but it cannot always be done.

One day she encountered a special case. Firas, a young man from Syria, had all his papers in order.

“He told me that it had taken him over a month to document his education, putting his own life on the line. He had run to the Damascus University again and again to gather his papers”, Frédérique Granath says.

But Firas did not get into the Master’s programme he had applied for, as he did not have a Bachelor’s essay from his studies in Syria. In order to write an essay at Lund University, he would have to study Swedish, which would delay his plan considerably.

Frédérique felt compelled to help Firas.

“I discussed the issue with my colleagues, and someone said that we could create a whole new syllabus, just for Firas.”

Frédérique created a syllabus worth 15 credits consisting of a dissertation in English, and with the help of the director of studies, she managed to get it approved, leading to Firas entering the course.

“It is worth fighting for this. If Firas had begun studying at once, he would have had to wait an entire year for his next shot”, Frédérique Granath says.

In parallel with the efforts from the authorities, there have thus started to appear small, creative solutions to find new paths through the wall that is the application machinery. And according to Bo-Anders Jönsson, adviser to the Vice-Chancellor at Lund University, there has not been a shortage of ideas on how to shape the validation and complementation process in the future. The great problem, however, is coordination between the various seats of learning.

“We need a solution that is sustainable in the long run. But there is a risk that that will take a while to find.”

Helene Hellmark Knutsson, minister for higher education and research, thinks that these new efforts are a step in the right direction. But she thinks that Swedish seats of learning for a long time have been very bad at making the most out of the competence that foreign academics harbour.

“On an individual level this is important, and on a greater society level, they can contribute with resources and skills that we are lacking today”, Helene Hellmark Knutsson says.

However, she believes that there is an awakening going on within the authorities, and the government are reallocating greater appropriations for the seats of learning in the coming years in order for them to develop their validation and complementation programmes.

“This year, we will increase the amount going to the complementing programmes with 25 million, and then rank up that amount to 30 million a year leading up to 2019. We will also increase the allocation to the Council for Higher Education by 8 million this year, and then by 12.5 million in the coming years”, Helene Hellmark Knutsson states.

Adviser to the Vice-Chancellor at Lund University Bo-Anders Jönsson refutes the claims by Helene Hellmark Knutsson that the seats of learning could do more to help the foreign academics. There is simply not enough resources, according to him.

“At the moment, we cannot even afford to put money into our ground level courses”, he says, continuing:

“We have stuck to the regulations in place. We simply cannot allow students that lack the requirements for a programme and do not have the resources necessary to make the corresponding assessments. On the other hand, I am of the opinion that the law needs to be rewritten, in order to make it easier for us to receive students with foreign degrees”, he says.

As it currently is, there are many problems with the efforts to help foreign academics into the seats of learning. Long waiting times, bureaucratic errors, application requirements that are difficult for many to meet as a result of their educational backgrounds. In addition there are not enough resources at the seats of learning, and the co-ordination on how to validate foreign degrees is lacking. Perhaps the efforts put forth recently will help to partly solve these problems. But there is still a great uncertainty in how this should be done.

In the café at Centre for Languages and Literature, Alaa looks down into his cup. At the table next to us, a group of students are finishing up a group assignment. He has to raise his voice to be heard.

“So much time has been lost on my part. When you move from country to country. So many years.”

The question is how long it will take before he can sit down at the next table instead.

Facts – entering the University as a newly arrived person:

After being granted a residence permit in Sweden as an asylum seeker, an establishment plan is set up by Arbetsförmedlingen for the newly arrived person that covers two years. The establishment plan contains, among other things, education in Swedish and work preparation. In January, almost 14,000 students in the establishment programme had a post-secondary education of two years or more. The average time it takes to get a foreign degree assessed by the Council for Higher Education is five months. Roughly twenty to thirty percent of all asylum seekers have a post-secondary education.

Article: Marcus Bornlid Lesseur & Gustav Wirtén

Translation: Carl-William Ersgård

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