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Higher education values can be seen as five slices of a pie that should sit at the core of any higher education institution: one pie is Academic freedom - i.e., the freedom to teach and discuss, of carrying out, disseminating and publishing research, to express opinions about and in an academic institution, freedom from censorship and to participate in professional or representative academic bodies*. The other four pieces of the pie are: Institutional autonomy; Social responsibility; Equitable access; Accountability**.


All these are part and parcel of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB)’s mission and founding principles. Some of the shared values at the core of the VUB include: giving humanity a central role; a democratic attitude; diversity as an asset; societal relevance, to name but a few. The university was set-up with the humanistic value at the centre of its being, and this is reflected in its name – ‘vrije’ (meaning free). It is an open university where freedom of research, freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of religion and other conventions are upheld.


Launch of Higher Education Values e-Handbook

On 13-14 June 2019, a joint stakeholder event took place at the European Committee of the Regions in Brussels organised by ACA (Academic Cooperation Association) and UNICA (Network of Universities from the Capitals of Europe) entitled, “Higher Education Values in Practice - Integration of highly skilled refugees and at-risk academics in Europe”.

The event was organised on behalf of the project teams GREET and Academic Refuge and focussed on academic values and the role of Europe’s higher education community in supporting students and academics with a refugee background and those who are at risk. It also saw the launch of the Academic Refuge’s e-Handbook, “Promoting Core Higher Education Values – perspectives from the field”. Stefan Smis, professor in international and human rights law at the VUB, is the handbook’s Editor-in-Chief. It is meant to be an inspiration for those who are looking at making higher education values an integral part of daily university life.  

The e-Handbook explains further what these values mean for higher education institutions and what tools and steps are involved. What follows are examples of institutions where these principles are embedded into the university’s fabric, citing VUB, ULB and Erasmus Hogeschool as one example, with the organisation every year of Difference Day (celebrating World Press Freedom Day). The e-handbook lists best practices to e.g. integrate refugees and scholars at risk into the university’s life.

One of the case studies presented is the VUB’s Welcome Refugee Programme and in particular its preparatory year (called InCAMPUS) where 20 to 25 refugee students are selected on the basis of language skills, interviews and motivation, and looking at who needs additional support and guidance before they can start their studies (in Dutch or English). The programme’s manager, Khaola Al Rifai from the VUB’s International Relations office adds, “Individual follow-up lies at the core of the programme. We take into account the complexity of each student’s situation.”



“Individual follow-up lies at the core of the programme. We take into account the complexity of each student’s situation.”
Khaola Al Rifai, VUB Welcome Refugee Programme Manager

“The Other 1 Percent”

As part of Refugee Week and World Refugee Day, another event took place on 18-19 June in Berlin, entitled ‘The Other 1 Percent – refugee students at higher education institutions worldwide’, aimed at facilitating discussion on best practices, needs and gaps in providing access to higher education for refugees. The event’s title refers to the current number of refugees who have access to higher education worldwide***. The conference gathered 200 representatives from academia, research organisations, governments, private sector and civil society, as well as refugee students and scholarship holders from around the world. It was organised by the German Federal Foreign Office (FFO) and co-hosted by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and the UNHCR.

A very clear call for action was presented at the end: increase the number of refugees with access to tertiary education to 15%.

The VUB’s Welcome refugee programme, and specifically its preparatory year, was presented in a poster session during the conference. Khaola Al Rifai will also participate in the World-Cafés discussion group on 19 June, adding her ample experience on the topic into the discussions. She will be accompanied by her colleague Tahaney Kattash, who deals directly with the new incoming refugee students at the VUB.

During the 2018-2019 academic year a total of 120 refugee students registered at VUB through the International Relations office, most coming from Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, and Somalia. 20 of these are InCAMPUS students. The majority studied in English and predominantly started master’s degrees, mostly in Social Sciences and Economics, Engineering, Arts and Philosophy, and Pharmacy and Medicine. The InCAMPUS programme is limited to a maximum of 20 students to enable proper follow up and guidance.

Applications are currently still open for the preparatory programme (InCAMPUS) at VUB, so please make contact for more information.


More information on the VUB’s work can be found on the Welcome Refugee Programme and InCAMPUS website

See also the moment when the UNHCR’s Goodwill Ambassador for Refugees visited the VUB at the beginning of the year.


*  UNESCO 1997 Rec., para. 27 (citing UNESCO 1974 Rec.).

** More information on - page 14-15.