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Italy: Initiatives to facilitate refugees' access to universities proliferate and unite

The first Italian higher education institution to open its doors to refugees and asylum-seekers was one of the most prestigious in the country: the Oriental University in Naples. With its 'Welcome Student-refugees Programme', this institution granted 12 scholarships since September 2015. Following this pioneer pilot project, similar others proliferated all over the country to finally inspire a nation-wide initiative called U4REFUGEES, promoted since May 2016 by the Ministry of Education, in partnership with UNHCR and the National Conference of University Deans (CRUI). On 20 July, partners have signed an official Agreement and announced 100 scholarships to be granted to refugee students as of September 2016.

Another innovative initiative is "Unibo for Refugee". This project allowed around 20 refugees living in the area of Bologna to enroll into undergraduate and master courses in order to complete their studies free of charge at the University of Bologna. The initiative, which started in January 2016, initially involved 47 beneficiaries of international protection (BIPs) hosted in government reception services in Bologna (SPRAR). They were interviewed to assess their motivations and willingness to engage into university paths, provided information and guidance to orient their choices and supported them with the burdensome bureaucratic procedures for the recognition of their foreign degrees. Furthermore, refugees/asylum seekers received ad-hoc tutoring services, with specific attention to classes of Italian language adapted to their profile. For the Academic Year 2016/2017, the University of Bologna has established that all BIPs enrolling into its courses could benefit from a full exemption of university fees and it will grant 5 scholarships for refugee students.

A similar initiative has been adopted by the smaller University of Pavia, which established contacts with the national office of the SPRAR system in order to identify candidates that could be interested in completing their education in Pavia. The main criteria for selection were: prior recognition of any form of international protection, willingness to remain in Italy, knowledge of the Italian and/or English, motivation and previous educational titles. In January 2016, around 50 candidates were evaluated by an ad-hoc committee and 14 of them were given scholarships as well as a total exemption of university fees. In addition, thanks to the support of local student unions and other organisations, refugees received board and lodging.

Other pilot projects have been active at the University of Turin, the Ca’ Foscari University in Venice and the Polytechnic of Turin for both for asylum-seekers and BIPs. These intitutions as well as all Italian public and private universities members of the CRUI participate in the U4REFUGEES programme, which is exclusively funded through financial resources allocated by member universities. The scholarships will already be available for the Academic Year 2016/2017 and allocated to cover university fees, board and lodging, as well access to university services (libraries, student centres etc.). At this stage, no cash is expected to be delivered to individual beneficiaries. Applications can be submitted by 11 September 2016. Eligible candidates include both refugees and beneficiaries of subsidiary protection legally residing in Italy. 

Officials of the Ministry of Interior Affairs Mario Morcone declare that the U4REFUGEES initiative is a part of the wider national strategy for the social inclusion of refugees in Italy, an issue that finally starts to be put at the center-stage of the political debate. The long-awaited National Plan for the Integration of Refugees is expected to be presented in the next months.