Migrants arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos © Reuters
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The maxim that if you teach a man to fish, you can feed him for a lifetime is perfect for helping someone in need of a herring supper. But what if you are trying to provide meaningful assistance to a university graduate uprooted from his or her homeland by civil war or oppression, whose dream is to build a career in business?

The plight of the masses of people fleeing violence in Africa and the Middle East has led to an outpouring of donations to business schools by alumni, enabling offers of a free postgraduate education to those with potential.

Bursaries and grants for refugees to study for masters and MBA qualifications have been made available by dozens of institutions, from as far afield as Esan Graduate School of Business in Peru to the University of Strathclyde Business School in the UK.

Some schools have already been able to get students on to courses. Alba Graduate Business School in Athens, for instance, provided a full scholarship for its MBA programme to a young refugee from Africa who arrived in the country on his own after his parents were killed, then learnt Greek in three months in order to pass the university exams.

Faculty members from Hanze University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands have been delivering various courses to refugees who are being temporarily housed locally in the city of Groningen.

Problems with targeting the market

Others, however, find that the process of advertising and administering such support makes its provision slow.

Grenoble Ecole de Management in France, for instance, has offered grants for up to 10 refugees from either Syria, Iraq or Eritrea, but it has yet to place anyone on its graduate courses. “Grenoble has said we stand ready,” says Phil Eyre, the school’s MBA director, before admitting that the process now has to wait to be overseen at national level by the Ministry of Higher Education and Research.

The problem for many schools is not a willingness to lend a hand, but the complexity of tapping the target market, consisting as it does of people whose primary concern is keeping body and soul together rather than learning company case studies.

Berlin’s European School of Management and Technology (ESMT) is offering two full scholarships for refugees arriving in Germany, adding to the 22 scholarships it has provided for students from economically less developed countries since 2011 through the Kofi Annan Fellowship scheme.

“It is a small drop in the bucket,” a school spokesperson admits, noting that more than 29,000 people registered in Berlin up to the end of September and numbers are expected to rise to 50,000 by the end of the year.

The biggest challenge may be to fill even these places because of the problem of getting the message to the right people, who are a small subset of Berlin’s larger refugee population.

“Conventional advertising for diversity scholarships in the past did not get much traction,” the ESMT spokesperson concedes. “We only received a handful of responses.”

Further south at HHL Leipzig Graduate School of Management, the issue of refugees is close to hand as the wider university campus has taken in 500 people recently arrived in Germany, housing them in bunk beds in the gymnasium.

“So many people have come in such a short time that a lot of initiatives in HHL are about how we can contribute to just relieving the pain and suffering,” explains Stephan Stubner, who teaches strategic management and family business at the school.

Donations have arrived from dozens of HHL alumni in recent months, making it possible to offer scholarships of up to €40,000 for three refugees who show a capacity to study for the masters in management qualification.

The pot of money raised is big enough to provide additional help with living expenses and travel costs, plus support with taking the necessary GMAT exams that HHL requires of all its student applicants.

“We want to lower the hurdles people have to jump over while not compromising standards,” Prof Stubner says.

Other priorities

The opportunity to acquire a business education is important for the future, but the reality is there are more pressing needs that also need to be addressed, he adds.

“I am a strong believer in the power of education, and there are a lot of people among those arriving in Leipzig who are highly motivated and educated,” he says. “But this must be seen as a long-term goal.”

The sheer numbers arriving in the EU mean that many people who would like to take up offers being made available by the top European schools are likely to be disappointed.

More than 410,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean from the Middle East in 2015 so far, according to the United Nations, which has been co-ordinating offers of assistance from dozens of business schools through its Principles for Responsible Management Education initiative.

Geography is not a problem for “edtech” companies such as the University of the People, a purely online, non-profit university, which has raised funding to accept 500 students to study despite their transitory circumstances.

Although UoPeople has so far raised $1m towards this effort, it has a cost advantage over bricks-and-mortar business schools. It does not charge tuition fees, only taking a processing fee of $100 per each end-of-course exam.

Again, however, the problem is reaching those the support is intended to help.

“When they know about us, they jump on board,” Shai Reshef, UoPeople’s founder and president, says. “The big challenge is spreading the word.”

Many established business schools, with campus facilities, feel that short-term humanitarian assistance is a bigger priority than preparing new student bursaries, which at best is slow burn source of help. Several have a tradition of running events to build relations between the school and the community within which they are based so it has been a matter of refocusing these efforts on refugee assistance.

For instance, the French school Essec has provided accommodation and basic material assistance for some of the 100 Syrian refugees who arrived in Cergy, the capital of the Val d’Oise area, where its campus is based.

This was helped by staff, who organised a collection of warm clothing and blankets for a week at the beginning of September.

Several Essec employees also provided translation assistance and helped to facilitate relations with the administrative authorities for people arriving in the city. “It is humanistic value,” a spokesperson said.

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