Founded in December 2014 by the Berlin-based university student Markus Kreßler, Wings University is a non-profit online school that appeals to refugees wishing to continue or begin their higher education. According to the organization's website, it offers:
World-class higher education. Internationally accredited degrees. For everyone, everywhere. Regardless of gender, nationality, ethnicity, religion, age, financial or social status. But tailor-made for the needs and requirements of refugees worldwide.
Students can enroll in classes without proof of identity or graduation certificates, and tuition is entirely free. The only time a student must verify their identity with the university is upon graduation, in order to receive a formal diploma. Until Wings University acquires official status as a university, the degrees will be provided by partner institutions.
All courses are held in English and can therefore be offered worldwide to an English-speaking student body. In cooperation with partner universities, including several top-ranking schools, participating professors design the courses.
Beginning this coming autumn, Wings University will offer courses in engineering, economics, and computer science. The choices are based on a survey of 617 people, 80 percent of whom self-identified as refugees. Subjects were asked about previous university degrees, coursework, and their desired study programs.
Despite its global focus, Kreßler's organization is rooted firmly in Germany, where the school works to reverse a trend where refugees often struggle in adult education programs:
Go out on the streets, talk to people living in refuge, their goals, their former studies and visions. You will be surprised how many of them started studying programs like engineering, almost finished their degrees but do not have the opportunity to continue at universities today.
According to federal laws on higher education and most school regulations, refugees are permitted to enroll in a study program, but only with the consent of the local foreigners’ registration office, which can raise legal obstacles for refugee students. Before enrollment, students must prove the validity of their university entrance qualification, which requires documents that refugees are often missing
Due to regulations during the examination of an asylum application, refugees often have to change residence several times and are normally accommodated at remote locations, making it very difficult for these people to access a permanent place to study. Refugees in Germany also face great uncertainty about the duration of their stay, not to mention significant language barriers.
Unlike refugees who have completed their asylum procedures and gained protected status, other refugees cannot apply for federal subsidies or other state support, unless they have been in the country for more than four years. Unsurprisingly, Wings University's survey showed that more than half of the respondents were unable to attend college due to insufficient financial resources.
The only things students at Wings University need are Internet access, a laptop, and the time and space to study. It remains to be seen if a school model like this can succeed with a student body working remotely in circumstances of dislocation.
Whatever the success or failure of this new experiment, alternative education models in immigrant countries are no replacement for a functioning school system in refugees’ homes, as well as better mechanisms for ensuring graduation and integration in international university networks.