We recently had the chance to speak with Vincent Zimmer and Markus Kreßler, the founders of Kiron Open Higher Education – whose vision is to provide millions of refugees worldwide with the chance to receive a free higher education degree. 

In this interview, they tell us about what makes Kiron stand out, how it has grown even beyond their dreams and what The Changer has to do with it.

What differentiates Kiron from other universities?

Our unique selling point compared to standard universities is that we are a (i) blended learning institution offering (ii) free accredited degrees with (iii) flexible choices regarding the accrediting institutions and (iv) provide an ecosystem to improve the learn success of (v) refugees and (vi) empower them to find jobs. More specifically this means:

  • (i) Our program includes online and offline courses. For the online courses we also provide physical space and learning hubs. No other university offers degrees completely based on MOOCS.
  • (ii) In cooperation with our partner universities, students can earn a degree that is accepted in the labour market for free. That means there are no direct costs or tuition fees.
  • (iii) Students can continue their education after the second year with several partner universities according to their interests, location and legal status. That means they can adapt to their own legal status at that moment in time.
  • (iv) Empowerment includes the ability to access our courses. Therefore, we also have channels to provide hardware, software as well as an internet connection. We provide language schools, psychological support as well as tutorials in order to help students succeed. We provide students with a free platform and supporting technology. So far, no other university can offer that.
  • (v) Traditional universities claim to empower minorities but often only reach the white middle class, who already have an academic background. We have a unique access to refugees and attracted huge attention in the field so far.
  • (vi) Finally, we want our students to succeed and establish partnerships with cooperations to offer internship programs and job opportunities. Some universities do the same but none have the same job guarantee we do.

It must have seemed like an impossible project at the beginning – what made you to keep going?

Actually, not. We always believed in our idea and we are actually rolling it out as planned. Of course it is true that every start up project seems rather unlikely in the beginning so I think every entrepreneur is kind of risk loving and ignores the chance of failing.

In terms of our project specifically, the direct contact with refugees, hoping for our project to succeed, makes us keep going. Their hope is our motivation.

"Their hope is our motivation."

The first students are starting in October. What were your biggest hurdles so far and how did you overcome them?

There were a lot of challenges but the two essential ones stand out. First, gaining the trust of the universities. We mastered that by presenting again and again until we finally got our first partner university. After that it became much easier.

Second, as with any startup , the financial side is important and we are always looking for resources to sustain our model and scale it up. We are reaching a small percentage of our target group so far and as far as we know, we are the only solution out there. The big foundations and investors understand that situation and are more and more willing to commit to our project.

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The change from Wings University to Kiron Open Higher Education was also a structural change. How did that develop and what was your key learning in the process?

We started Wings as an online university because we didn’t dream of the immense support the universities would provide us with. However, we realized there are not enough MOOCS published to build an entire online curriculum. We dived it into didactic concepts and realized that a mix of online and offline elements is much more promising in terms of student success.

In your opinion, what role do state, civil society and private companies have in the training of refugees? How can the job be shared?

All stakeholders have to work in concert rather than as rivals in order to ensure an effective and sustainable solution to the current refugee situation and allow these people to start a new life. Civil society is the key player in order to provide first aid and help these people settle in. However, without a perspective for a paid job the people will not be able to live independently from the state. Politicians needs to set the right laws and guidelines to help in this process rather then disturbing it even further, as they are doing in Bavaria.

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What motivated you to start?

tbd*. Markus and I made the final decision to start Kiron at an event hosted by McKinsey with tbd*. It was the moment where we realized that we didn´t want to go that path and it was tbd* Co-Founder, Naomi Ryland, who told us to do something good with our life. I think we accomplished that now in a better way.

All photos copyright Kiron Open Higher Education.

This article was originally published in October 2015.