Kiron provides refugees with opportunities to study

The Berlin-based social start-up Kiron Open Higher Education delivers higher education to refugees. Through an innovative blended learning model that consists of online and offline elements, bureaucratic, financial and legal barriers are overcome.

Rosemary Bechler
18 November 2016


Sajida, Kiron Open Higher Education. All rights reserved.

It all started with a brief encounter, I am told. At a conference on refugees, Vincent Zimmer and Markus Kressler met for the first time. Vincent and Markus quickly realized that they shared the same vision: that of a university 2.0, enabling a greater public to have access to higher education, especially refugees. After initial talks with universities, MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) providers and decision makers from politics, business and science, Kiron was founded in the beginning of 2015 with the vision of empowering its students to self-determine in their lives, by offering them access to higher education. Thanks to the extraordinary support of a great number of volunteers and a successful social-crowdfunding campaign, the first students were able to start studying in October 2015.

Kiron had to work out how to overcome the four most important obstacles for their students in accessing higher education. It drastically reduced expenses on campuses and courses by developing contracts with leading Mooc platforms and providers, also obviating the need for enrollment fees. It overcame legal hurdles by ensuring that students could start studying without any official documents, only requiring these when the student became an applicant to a partner university after one or two years of study with Kiron. This approach also had the advantage of cutting down the college capacity required. No such capacities were necessary during the online study phase, and when Kiron students did apply to higher education institutions they could fill up the free university places that are being provided thanks to this scheme. Most Moocs being in English ( with some in German, Arabic and French) – innovative language apps were developed to overcome language barriers alongside the partnerships that Kiron has built with established institutions of language learning. At Kiron, students can start studying online regardless of their location, legal status, documents or language skills.

The Kiron team now has 60 employees based in Germany, France, Turkey and Jordan. More than 300 highly committed volunteers worldwide support the core team.

From refugees to students

The identity change from refugee to student stands at the core of Kiron. Refugees often live in conditions that prevent them from reaching their full potential, especially regarding education. While more than 30% of the world’s population have access to tertiary education, this only applies to 1% of refugees. Kiron tackles this challenge and works to overcome the barriers that impede refugees from studying.

Today, there are approximately 2000 students on the Kiron Campus platform who can choose between four study tracks: business and economics, engineering, computer science and social sciences. There are no associated costs for students to begin their studies with Kiron. After an online study phase with Kiron, students can apply for one of its partner universities and continue studying offline with the opportunity of achieving an accredited Bachelor’s degree. The non-profit organization is financed by foundations, public funding as well as private and corporate donations.

Innovative ‘blended learning 2.0’ concept

Kiron’s concept is based on an innovative educational model called ‘blended learning 2.0’ that combines online and offline as well as synchronous and asynchronous elements. An approximately two-year online study phase on Kiron’s learning platform is followed by offline studies at one of Kiron’s partner universities where students get a significant part of their prior learning at Kiron recognized. This is made possible through joint learning agreements based on the regulations of the Lisbon Recognition Convention. At the moment Kiron has 18 German partner universities and 6 international partner universities in France, Jordan and Italy.

Established MOOC providers like edX, Coursera or Saylor Academy provide Kiron with online courses, mostly in English. Most of the MOOCs are self-paced which means that the students are organizing their learning progress themselves. Others are live courses with fixed start dates. Kiron clusters the courses in study modules according to the standards of the European Higher Education Area and develops course schedules for each study track. The study tracks combine asynchronous open online courses (MOOCs) with synchronous live online tutorials provided by Kiron’s Direct Academics that complement the Kiron modules.

Studying online requires a high level of discipline and responsibility from each student. In addition to the online courses, Kiron offers complimentary student services to support them in their studies. Among those additional services figure a language school, live-tutorials via Direct Academics, a platform-integrated help desk and buddy and mentoring programmes. As many students have gone through traumatizing experiences or live in difficult conditions, Kiron offers a complimentary and professional counselling service for all students. Furthermore, students can meet fellow students and form offline study groups at Kiron Study Centers, where they are provided with hardware and internet access. In addition Kiron is working closely together with Workeer, a job and internship platform for refugees.

By 2018, Kiron intends to successfully implement its model and student services beyond Germany in other European countries, Jordan and Turkey. It’s modularized study program serves as a flexible solution to providing location-independent access to higher education. Kiron has the vision to provide as many refugees as possible with access to higher education through its innovative educational model. This is key to long-term integration into society and the labour market of the host country.

Kiron´s students

Although Kiron‘s students come from very diverse backgrounds, more than 50% are originated in Syria. Sajida is one of them, she is 20 years old and from Syria. She had just started studying at university when she had to leave Damascus with her family. It took some time and effort before she was able to continue her studies at Kiron. In November 2014, Sajida’s family relocated to Turkey, where she worked in a garment factory, a Syrian restaurant and a library. After a short stay in Greece, Sajida eventually arrived in Germany. It was not possible for Sajida to continue her studies in Germany as her legal status was unclear and she did not speak German.

She heard about Kiron from a friend in a refugee camp in Berlin and decided to start her studies in mechanical engineering at Kiron in May 2016. In addition to her online courses and academic responsibilities, Sajida also works part time for Kiron in student recruitment and communication. In order to be able to transfer successfully to a partner university, Sajida takes several offline German lessons a week. Sajida’s goal is to become an engineer and she dreams of being able to return to Syria equipped with an education to help contribute to rebuilding her country.


Ahmad, Kiron Open Higher Education. All rights reserved.

Also Ahmad comes from Syria. Ahmad was one of the first students in Social Science at Kiron and is the highest performing student so far. He managed to complete 23 online courses in only 6 months and also took part in Kiron’s Direct Academics courses like “Political Conflict Analysis”. After completing this course, Ahmad wrote an article entitled a “Critical History of the Syrian Civil War”, which was subsequently published in the Oxford Journal of Interrupted Studies.

With Kiron’s recommendation, he received a full scholarship from Bard College in Berlin and just recently started his bachelor degree studies at this partner university of Kiron. Ahmad continues to be a member of the Kiron family as a student assistant in Social Sciences who uses his experience to support other students in succeeding with their studies at Kiron.

At the closing session of the World Forum for Democracy, the Council of Europe announced that the winner of its Democracy Innovation Award was the German initiative Kiron, which gives refugees access to higher education worldwide. The three initiatives out of the nearly 40 presented at the Forum shortlisted for the final vote were: MaYouth Civic Education Initiative (Zimbabwe) – lab 8, Democracy in Practice (USA/Bolivia) – lab 1, Higher Education for Refugees (Germany) – lab 13.


The 2017 World Forum for Democracy will discuss populism, looking particularly at the role of political parties and the media.

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