Higher Education

OPINION: Universities around the world must do more to help refugees

How one European business school is working to meet the global challenge

Maria Alhakim has traveled a long road to get to the Bachelor in International Business in English track at Grenoble Ecole de Management in France. Her home country is Syria. Along with her family, she spent a year moving around, from Egypt to Lebanon and back to Syria.

Her parents have a deep history in Syrian politics. When the family finally received visas to come to France, Alhakim’s mother was arrested at the border and couldn’t join the rest of the family until a month later.

Even in France, the family remained split up for a year, with Alhakim and her parents in a camp in Pont de Cheruy and her sister at a French family’s home in Grenoble. Alhakim says she didn’t feel like she was even in France. “That is why I say I have been here since 2015,” says Alhakim. “It was the year we moved to Grenoble and started discovering this beautiful place and meeting beautiful people.”

Change begins at home. And home is a campus when you are dean of a top business school in the French Alps, Grenoble Ecole de Management (GEM). One of the greatest challenges I face in modern-day Europe, as a dean and as a citizen, is doing my part to help manage immigration. The continent as a whole, including France, has yet to have much success in helping migrants to assimilate.

Over years of conflict, 13 million Syrian people like Alhakim and her family have become refugees. About one million of them are in Europe, according to Eurostat and UNHCR and as reported by the Pew Research Center in 2018. Abandoning people in their hour of need is not an option. Education is one way to help people integrate and build new lives in foreign places.

Business schools ought to do more to help refugees. And all universities around the world should admit and cover the costs for at least two refugee students — not only business schools, and not only graduate business students. If we do not do it, nobody will. Thus, when France’s Minister of Education requested help from universities, we stepped up to serve.

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At GEM, we’ve decided to extend a warm welcome to academically qualified refugees who are eager to further their educations. Alhakim is one of them. She is in her first year in the undergraduate program and hopes to work in marketing after graduation.

We believe that this kind of outreach is key to integration, so that immigrants can better contribute to our community. At GEM, we are teaching them the business skills necessary to help them transition to French society and fully contribute as professionals and citizens.

We began collaborating with the COMUE, a consortium of local higher-education establishments, in a working group composed also of local humanitarian associations, national student lodging and services (CROUS), and the municipality. Together we created common policies, practices for admission, handbooks and programs to facilitate the integration of students and scholars (members of “Scholars at Risk”). The program has already trained more than 70 students.

Those who demonstrate the necessary qualifications are accepted into the program free of charge. Since 2016, we have welcomed five migrants into our programs. In January 2018, the first class graduated. Two more have been admitted for the 2018-19 academic year.

Refugee applicants need to have the proper paperwork, including proof of official refugee status. In addition, they need a translated copy of their prior qualifications to ensure they have the proper credentials. We waive all fees and have simplified the rest of the application process for refugees.

The majority of applications we have received have come from Syrian refugees, but the opportunity is not exclusive to them. In fact, we have had one Palestinian student. We have one student who graduated with a specialized master’s in entrepreneurship, two others are in our MBA program, two are in our undergraduate program, and one is a doctoral candidate.

Granted, the process of integrating on campus and in the community is never easy. One of the first steps is to help refugees gain the French language skills necessary to live and work here. We cannot accept every refugee applicant. We want to ensure that they can succeed in our rigorous programs.

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Still, they encounter challenges. They are required to participate in internship recruiting, but they have no contacts of their own to start. Of course, getting hired after graduation is hardly a given. Indeed, that is our next big hurdle. We are testing a program to help refugee students work on their career prospects through career services.

MBA student Bassel Ibrahim, another Syrian refugee, says he was able to fit in well on campus because his program is international, but he has sent out many job inquiries over the last three years and was either ignored or rejected outright without gaining an interview. Ibrahim says he would like to see more flexibility on the part of businesses in the same way that GEM is responding to the crisis.

“I know that the French job market is complicated for the French people with a high degree of unemployment,” he adds. “But it is more complicated for refugees.”

The time has come for businesses to go beyond their profit-driven missions and commit to improving society’s well-being. With this responsibility in mind, business schools must train the next generation of leaders to do far more than earn profits or even create jobs.

CEOs must also address growing social and economic challenges and injustices to help build a brighter tomorrow. Their mission should be to lead successful businesses that make the world a better place while also earning profits.

We don’t just pay lip service to these ideas. We live them. We no longer think of ourselves as “working at a business school,” but rather we are working at a school for business and society. We’ve changed our mission to remind ourselves — and our competitors — that the stakes are higher than ever.

Our program for refugees is but one aspect of our mission to help the world. But it demonstrates our compassion and empathy, two of the qualities that a great leader must possess. It also shows that we’re human first.

This story on refugee students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Loïck Roche is director and dean at Grenoble Ecole de Management (Grenoble School of Management), in Grenoble, France.

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Loïck Roche

Loïck Roche is director and dean at Grenoble Ecole de Management (Grenoble Business School), in Grenoble, France. See Archive

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