Refugees and adult education: Symposium of EAEA member Bildungshaus Schloss Retzhof

Wed 16 Mar 2016 10:30:00 AM EET

On 1-2 February 2016, EAEA’s Austrian member Bildungshaus Schloss Retzhof organised a Symposium on refugees and adult education. The event, to which EAEA actively contributed, represented a valuable opportunity to share experiences and discuss the directions that adult education could take in the current refugee situation.

Local initiatives: adult education in integration

The symposium was opened by Joachim Gruber, Director of Bildungshaus Schloss Retzhof, and Ursula Lackner, Regional Minister for Education and Societal Affairs of Styria, Austria, who underlined the fundamental role of adult education in refugee integration. “The ‘arrival period’ is crucial for refugees coming to Europe. At regional and local level, there are already great initiatives which need to be reflected in European policy making,” she said, and continued, “Education is the key for inclusion, and adult education is an indispensable part of it.”

Ursula Lackner, Regional Minister for Education and Societal Affairs of Styria, Austria, underlined the fundamental role of adult education in refugee integration: “Education is the key for inclusion, and adult education is an indispensable part of it.”

Beyond any doubt, the topic of “refugees” and “asylum” continues to instil fear and anxiety among the European population. One of the sources of concern is the potential strain on social welfare systems, as some expect refugees and migrants to become financially dependent on the help provided by the state. This argument is commonly used by politicians, who like to scapegoat refugees and migrants for the deterioration of social welfare systems, even though social developments in Europe are far from unilinear. That said, the speakers agreed that the growing fears of European citizens have to be fully addressed.

Joachim Gruber, Director of Bildungshaus Schloss Retzhof, encouraged the participants of the symposium to engage in a lively and fruitful debate.

“We need to ‘de-frighten’ people of the consequences of migration. The debate is charged with emotion, nurtured by trench warfare between different political parties. Adult education plays a significant role in bringing the debate back to a factual level,” claimed Franz Waltl, Caritas Styria, in his presentation about the background of the current refugee situation.

“Adult education can give refugees a human face. It brings people from the country of destination together with refugees and provides them with language skills and knowledge how to navigate in the new culture,” continued Mr. Waltl.

The inherent role played by cultural aspects was also underlined by Annette Sprung, Professor at Karl-Franzens-Universität Graz, who explained different theories of adult education in migration and asked about barricades for migrants and refugees to become learners. “What we see is a mono-cultural habitus of the education system where it is very difficult for ‘outsiders’ to be accepted by the majority and to understand cultural concepts,” she criticised. This issue has already been addressed through mig2eb, an Austrian project which developed guidelines for adult education providers to create awareness of different cultural identities within their own organisations and implement it in the daily work.

Validation of skills is a must

The speakers provided concrete examples of the responses that adult education could bring. “One way to deal with this situation is to offer real opportunities for refugees to have their skills validated and their qualifications recognised in order to be able to participate in the labour market,” said Karl Heinz Snobe, Labour Market Service Styria. “Diversity-oriented recruiting needs to go hand in hand with these measures.”

Edith Zitz, inspire – Association for Education and Management, added that the validation of informally acquired skills was especially important to acknowledge the experience that refugees have gained in various fields. “If that does not happen, it is as if they had never lived,” she emphasised. “We should not talk about educational attainments, but about educational continuity of socially disadvantaged groups, and how to make that possible.”

Integration measures: best practices across Europe

To provide a wider perspective, the organisers invited EAEA Policy Officer Tania Berman to present some best practices from all around Europe on adult education being an integration measure for refugees. She introduced a few successful campaigns launched by EAEA members. One of them, the Danish “Non-formal Adult Education for Refugees”, aims to raise awareness on adult education activities for, with and about refugees and to inform the population about them. Similarly, the multinational Info4Migrants project includes a website that provides information for migrants and for people that would like to help them. Yet another project mentioned by Ms. Berman, welcome workshops for refugees organised by the City of Vienna and the Viennese adult education centers (Volkshochschulen), provide information modules twice a week for free for refugees on a variety of topics in Arabic or Farsi/Dari.

Another interesting example was provided by Ulrike Zimmermann from the Volkshochschule Meidling, who discussed the successful story of “German in the Park” in Vienna. The project, which was also included in the collection of OED network’s best practice examples, involved holding German classes in a local park, with the informal setting benefitting the teaching methods and communication with learners.

Those who did not have the chance to attend the event can also watch a short video:

Adult education and refugees

Adult education and refugees is one of EAEA's themes for 2016. You can find more best practice examples from all over Europe at the dedicated EAEA website.

Text: Raffaela Kihrer and Tania Berman
Photos: Raffaela Kihrer
Video: Bildungshaus Schloss Retzhof