Unique study preparation for refugees

For a long time, it was difficult for refugees in Switzerland to be admitted to study at higher education institutions. However, the war in Ukraine led to some reflection, and also to the Compass UniBE program.

The admission criteria for refugees looking to study in Switzerland are very strict. The criteria barely even considered their difficult living situation until now. For example, people who had started studying before fleeing but were unable to complete their degree, or those who could not produce their diplomas, usually had to start from scratch.

In order to support refugees, several universities and student initiatives have been offering preparatory courses for a few years. Since 2016, the Student Body of the University of Bern has been running a mentoring and guest auditorium program for refugee students called Open Lecture Hall. However, despite these initiatives, no higher education institution offered a program that served as a qualification for possible admission to university.

War in Ukraine changed everything

The Scholars at Risk working group started at the University of Bern at the end of 2020. This working group addresses the issue of university access for refugee students. This resulted in an idea for a university preparation project for refugees, which was approved by the University Executive Board at the beginning of March 2022. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the same time lent additional topicality and urgency to this issue.

“I would like to integrate and work as a teacher.”

Diana Pashchenko begann in der Ukraine ein Marketing-Studium. Jetzt bereitet sie sich auf ein Englisch-Studium an der Universität Bern vor und möchte Lehrerin werden.
©Dres Hubacher

Diana Pashchenko begann in der Ukraine ein Marketing-Studium. Jetzt bereitet sie sich auf ein Englisch-Studium an der Universität Bern vor und möchte Lehrerin werden.

In the spring semester 2022, numerous prospective Ukrainian students who wanted to register for a semester abroad contacted the UniBE International office. 38 were accepted as exchange students in a simplified procedure. However, this was only a temporary solution as the regulations at the time stipulated that students from Ukraine were not allowed to stay for more than two semesters and, strictly speaking, would have had to be registered at a partner university.

Quick action

The Executive Board of the University of Bern reacted in 2022 by asking Jana Müller from UniBE International to set up a preparatory year for Ukrainian Students. There wasn’t much time because the program was due to start in the fall semester 2022. It was a pilot project that was implemented in this way across Switzerland for the first time. It had two goals: firstly, to enable participants to obtain the required C1 level of German within one year and to prepare for life and studying in Switzerland; and secondly, to transfer what they learnt from the project into the Compass year.

Successful pilot year becomes Compass UniBE

The University Executive Board could see the potential of the preparatory year for Ukraine and knew that university access for refugees needed to be improved in general, so it pushed the implementation of a preparatory year for refugees, regardless of where they came from. In summer 2022, it hired Ann-Seline Fankhauser and Solvej Sörensen to set up Compass UniBE, a two-semester university preparation program for refugees interested in studying.

“In practice, language is one of the biggest obstacles for refugees.”

Ann-Seline Fankhauser

About the person

Ann-Seline Fankhauser

has an MA in social sciences and law and is the project manager of Compass UniBE.

The program requirements were established with support from the Vice-Rector for Quality at the time, Silvia Schroer, and an internal university advisory group. Fankhauser and Sörensen also held discussions with the relevant people in the asylum and integration sector in order to clarify future cooperation. The university announced the program and established the registration and selection processes after just a few months.

“Learning new things motivates me”

Eqbal Nabizada stammt aus Afghanistan und ist Fachmann Betreuung. Nun möchte er an der Universität Bern studieren.
©Theodora Peter

Eqbal Nabizada comes from Afghanistan and specializes in care. Now, he would like to study at the University of Bern.

In April 2023, the Executive Board of the University of Bern adopted the legal framework for the Compass UniBE program. The application stage for participation in the pilot project was also successfully concluded at the same time.

Compass UniBE meets with keen interest

Compass UniBE supports participants who fulfil the country-specific admission requirements but whose German is still not at the right level, and also those who only partially fulfil the country-specific admission requirements. The dossiers and language ability of over 70 applicants were reviewed in close cooperation with the Admissions Office and the Language Center once the application period closed. At the end of June, 20 people received confirmation of participation in the two-semester Compass preparatory year. The participants’ timetables are individually tailored to their interests, previous education, and learning needs.

Particular attention is paid to ensuring that participants acquire the necessary language skills because “in practice, language is one of the biggest obstacles for refugees,” says Ann-Seline Fankhauser. Quick access to high-level academic language courses is therefore essential. This means the Language Center is hugely important because of its range of language courses.


"Cooperation with the many organizations involved is challenging. We have learned a lot for the second year"

 Solvej Sörensen

About the person

Solvej Sörensen

has an MA in ethnography and social anthropology. She is a member of the scientific staff of Compass UniBE.

Confirmations were also received from the Office for Integration and Social Affairs of the Canton of Bern, the State Secretariat for Migration and the Burgergemeinde Bern (civic community of Bern). These bodies will supplement the funding provided by the university with start-up funding during the first two years of Compass.

Cooperation with internal and external partners

In addition to language courses, Compass UniBE also offers courses for professional and organizational preparation. Some of these courses and events are carried out by external partners, such as the math course that participants attend at the University of Teacher Education in Bern or information events on the Swiss education system offered by the Swiss Careers Information Center (BiZ).

The Student Body supports participants in everyday life so that they can find their way through their complex daily studies. The faculties also offer a helping hand as Compass participants attend regular lectures and encounter a great deal of openness and understanding from the lecturers.

Ann-Seline Fankhauser and Solvej Sörensen are in agreement: even though there were few obstacles to overcome in the first year of the project, they are grateful and proud that Compass UniBE was able to start on time. And what makes them even happier is that participants started this first Compass year with so much motivation and zeal.


Compass UniBE

University Preparation for Refugee Students

is a two-semester university preparation program for refugees who are aiming to study at the University of Bern. Over the course of a year, participants can acquire academic skills and basic academic competencies while also preparing linguistically, professionally and organizationally for possible admission to a course of study. This means that they can compensate for country-specific admission criteria that cannot be fulfilled (or are very difficult to fulfil) due to the person's refugee situation by passing the preparatory year and qualifying for a degree.

Students from Turkey, Ukraine and Afghanistan are currently taking part in the program. In the initial pilot year, the number of participants was capped at 20, but this cap has been raised to 40 for the second year.

About Compass UniBE