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Kiron: An online university giving refugees a free education

Author: SIE
Published Date: 4 January 2016

Kiron is open higher education for refugees. They provide refugees with world-class education and the opportunity to graduate at a university free of charge.


The idea for Kiron was born in the summer of 2014 by Vincent Zimmer and Markus Kreßler. Vincent was eager to start a revolution in higher education by developing a new kind of university that incorporates technological advances and focuses more on the individual learner. Markus, who was working with refugees and migrants at that time, was instantly overwhelmed by the opportunities this new kind of university offers for refugees who did not have access to higher education so far. So they started talking with online course providers, universities and decision makers in politics and economy and soon found out that there are quite easy solutions for every single barrier that made it impossible for refugees to enter higher education so far.


What were the challenges faced when first establishing Kiron?


Refugees, asylum seekers, and displaced people in crisis regions face exceptional obstacles when accessing higher education in their host or home countries. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) identified the main challenges as: the need for legal documentation, high student fees, the lack of capacity in educational institutions as well as language barriers. These obstacles prevent around 5 million people from living up to their potential and lead to higher integration costs for host countries.


There were a lot of challenges for us but the first essential one was gaining the trust of the universities, which we mastered by presenting again and again, until we finally got our first partner universities. After that it became much easier. As for any start up project, there is also the financial challenge; we are looking for resources to sustain our model and scale it up. We are reaching a small percentage of our target group so far and as far as we know, we are the only solution out there. Investors and the big foundations understand that situation and are more and more willing to commit to our project.


Since its inception in 2014, what impact has Kiron had and what type of support has it received?


Now we are not just an academy where people can study; we developed to a whole ecosystem which is directed at all the different needs of the students - so the offer is supplemented. We collaborate with strong corporate and public sector partners to supply hardware, software, and Internet access in different regions, thus providing the basic prerequisites for joining online courses. Through the cooperation of educational institutions and decentralized “Learning Hubs", we enable access to study rooms and facilitate social interactions and exchange among students. While a large part of our courses are provided in English (with the option to add subtitles in other languages), we are working with language support providers like Babbel and the language center Instituto Cultural Colombo Alemán (ICCA) to provide access to English, German, and other language courses. Many displaced people have also encountered traumatic experiences before or during their flight, which makes studying even more difficult for them. Moreover, online studies bear additional challenges compared to studies at a campus. To address our students’ needs, we offer them access to our student support services through Kiron emPower, where they have the option to receive psychosocial advice and tutoring, as well as the opportunity to participate in our buddy and mentoring program. We are also working together with strong partners for the occupational perspectives of the students. Like on the Code Academy, where students learn how to code, we are working together with Udacity, which offers affordable and interactive online courses to empower students to improve not just their education, also their careers. They provide us the course content for free and help us thereby to get the students into jobs linked to coding. 


Public officials like Peter Altmeier, the coordinator for the refugee crises in Germany, recognised our project very early and showed much interest in finding our more about Kiron. We have been also in touch with a many officials from the ministries as well as from the parliament. We were very happy to recognize that there were also a high support of the community. So many people were donating to our crowd funding campaign at Startnext and so we reached the overwhelming amount of €536.679! Because of this in October 2015, the first 1250 students initiated their studies with Kiron. This is also facilitated through a team of around 80 people from different fields, including educational experts, entrepreneurs, IT-specialists, and psychologists. This team is strengthened by around 250 volunteers and works in consultation with a competence pool of over 50 professors from around the world. The amazing feedback of our students give us the power to go on with our work every day.


How have you seen your role changing in response to Europe's recent migrant crisis? For instance, do you see the project being extended to other countries?


The Europe recent migrant crisis showed that everybody can get a refugee by now. It is important to help the people to get back in a self-determined life by providing them the access to education. For this, all stakeholders have to work in concert rather than as rivalling approaches in order to overcome the refugee crises and help this people to start a new life. The civil society is the key player in order to provide first aid and help this people to settle in. However, without a perspective for a paid job, these people will not be able to life independently from the state. The politics needs to set the right laws and guidelines to help in this process rather than disturbing it like in Bavaria. Our goal is to empower people to integrate not only on an economic level into the labour market, but also on a social level into society.


In addition to our headquarters in Berlin and offices in Brussels and Boston, Kiron already operates local groups in Istanbul, Paris, London, Munich, Aachen, Leipzig, and Stockholm.


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Learn more about Kiron.