Kiron University: Open only for refugees

Kiron University students Kirollos and Andrew

Story highlights

  • Kiron University provides free, three year degree courses exclusively for refugees
  • The university opened with its first 1200 students in mid-October
  • Kiron uses courses from partnered universities including Harvard, Stanford and MIT

(CNN)Imagine a university that could provide an education to refugees, wherever they are in the world, for free.

Not only would this give displaced people a higher chance of employment in their new countries, but it would provide a social and professional network where they can meet others facing similar challenges.
    But with 42,500 people being forced from their homes every day, who could afford such a monumental project?
    The answer comes, as it does so often these days, in the form of crowd-funding.
    Kiron University, which launched with its first students this October, has turned its utopian vision into reality using only the power of online donations and a rapidly expanding team of around 100 volunteers.
    The campaign, which ends Friday, asked for €120,000, but has so far raised €233,557 (about $250,000).
    Based in Berlin, Germany, the university runs all of its courses online and students have to submit proof of their refugee status in order to enroll.
    Currently in a test stage limited to 1,200 students, the university has plans to provide free higher education for all refugees who are able to gain access to the internet via computer, tablet or smart phone, wherever they are in the world.

    How does it work

    Markus Kressler, a co-founder of Kiron, told CNN how the project came about: "The vision came from meeting with and speaking to refugees from Syria last year in Istanbul, just before the massive migration into Europe happened.
    "They were clearly a good class of people, who wanted to learn and contribute to society."
    He added: "One big barrier for displaced people is that they cannot enroll in normal universities because they do not have access to the proper paperwork. Another barrier is high fees.
    "We developed Kiron to be the ideal university for refugees, so, we removed both of these barriers. The other thing we do is to make sure that all our courses are accessible online, so students can continue their courses wherever they end up."
    Markus Kressler, Co-Founder of Kiron
    The two points are connected: it is only possible to educate students so cheaply by relying on online courses produced by other universities.
    Kiron uses courses put online by existing universities -- including Harvard, Yale, Cambridge and MIT -- to provide courses in engineering, computer science, business administration, architecture and intercultural studies. The courses are certified by the European Credit Transfer System, making each degree program internationally recognized.
    However, that's not to say Kiron does not have input in its degree programs. The university produces its own learning materials, third-party content and e-learning technology.
    The innovative education technology at the heart of the Kiron project is largely down to Juan David Mendieta, Head of Technology at Kiron University, and his team of volunteer developers, who are based in Brussels.
    "A bank has kindly given us the sponsorship for an office in Brussels," Mendieta told CNN. "The location is ideal because of the proximity to the European Parliament and NGOs."
    The university also provides special language courses, laptops, internet access and even psychological counseling for its students.

    The students

    Kashif Kazmi, a refugee from Pakistan and student of Kiron, told CNN: "Being a part of Kiron has been wonderful for me. I feel like I am now really starting to integrate with society. As it is hard for refugees to find work immediately in a new country, many have nothing to do all day.
    "Kiron University allows you to help yourself. It makes you want to contribute and shows you how this is possible."
    Kazmi entered Germany in late July. A minority Shiite Muslim, he fled his country -- and left his family behind -- after high school because of the threat of the Pakistani Taliban.
    Kashif Kazmi, student spokesperson for Kiron University
    Unable to provide documents proving he'd graduated from high school, and without much money, Kiron was Kazmi's only hope for higher education. He now plans to study mechanical engineering in Berlin, his new home.
    "One of the great things about Kiron is that the courses our flexible. This means that students are able to do paid work, whilst studying. I am currently looking for a job, so that I can do this," Kazmi said.
    Degree courses at the university will typically last three years, as is the norm in Europe.
    The first two years will be completed online, but in their third year, students will have the chance to study on campus at established universities.
    The initial 1200 places at Kiron were filled four months before the start of term. The university hopes to welcome 10,000 students next year.

    What's next for Kiron?

    Kiron has suffered from some of the teething problems that are inevitable with ambitious projects. Kressler admits the need for more "physical spaces" and student hubs across Europe, so that students can meet up more often, for example. This would allow students to have something closer to a traditional university experience.
    Another problem is funding.
    "The 200,000 euros we have raised so far from crowd-funding is great, however our volunteers can't afford to work without a salary forever and we need more investment to fund more students," Mendieta said.
    When asked what advice he would give to others willing to help in the refugee crisis, Kressler said: "Just start doing something. The German mentality is very much to make sure everything thing is perfect and every problem is solved before doing something.
    "I'd say just do it and you can solve the problems along the way."