Homeless university offers hope on the streets

For many homeless people going to university was just a dream. But now Berlin's Homeless University is offering many of those on the streets an education and a hope of getting themselves out of a dire situation.

Homeless university offers hope on the streets
Klaus Seilwinder at the Homeless University. Photo: DPA

Sitting in a classroom in the capital, Klaus Seilwinder eagerly discusses philosophical texts, 10 years of living on the streets etched into his face.

"I have a need for education," he says, joining in with today's debate – Political Philosophy: Law and Justice – at the Homeless University.

The university is a new education project, which started in the German capital with the aim of giving homeless people more of social life, although those with a permanent residence can also sign up.

Seminars on subjects including cookery, bible study and philosophy, are taught by volunteers, some of whom were formerly homeless, and take place in locations across Berlin.

"The university has been well-received," said Maik Eimertenbrink, the communications specialist, who initiated the project, following the model of Megaphon-Uni in Graz, Austria, which offers free lectures and workshops, regardless of people's origin or social background.

Eimertenbrink said that normally passers-by would just give people living on the streets a euro and then walk away, but that many wanted to be challenged and to learn.

"They're not stupid, they have something to offer," said the 37-year-old.

For Seilwinder, the classes have helped him to get his life under control – an alcoholic, he has not had a drink for a year-and-a-half, and meanwhile, he has found a secure home and is receiving Hartz IV unemployment benefits.

"The meetings firstly provide structure," said Seilwinder, who was formerly a professional soldier, and goes not only to the philosophy course, but also to theatre and cookery classes, as well as teaching a class of his own on how to get off the streets.

Meanwhile, for Mandy, who still lives on the streets after losing her job when she got ill from working 14-hour days, the university does something more than just providing a platform for learning – it gives her something to aim for.

"Eventually, I will think of something, which I can do to turn things around," she said.

READ MORE: Homeless offer tours of their Berlin

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Explained: This is what studying in Germany will look like in autumn 2020

Germany remains a highly sought after study destination with lots to offer international students. With the autumn term set to begin, we spoke to students and experts to find out what it could be like to study here this year.

Explained: This is what studying in Germany will look like in autumn 2020
Archive photo shows students at workstations in the Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm Center, the university library of Humboldt University Berlin. Photo: DPA

Moving abroad to go to university can be daunting at the best of times. So to do so in the middle of a pandemic might seem more than a little scary. But Germany’s roughly 350,000 international students still have lots to look forward to this year. 

“What students coming to Germany should know is universities still want to welcome new students and everyone in the sector is really committed to making sure teaching is high quality and that it’s safe,” says Gerrit Bruno Blöss, managing director of

READ ALSO: In Numbers: Who are Germany's international students?

In fact, Germany has seen an uptake in interest from students, Blöss says. This could be because of it’s late application deadline, or it’s international reputation for handling the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic well, he suggests. 

It could also be because of Brexit; UK universities may lose 84 percent of EU students to continental European universities, with Germany at the forefront of alternative study destinations, research from has shown.

But what will it be like to study in Germany this year? 

Mix of online and face-to-face teaching

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, many universities around the world have been forced to close down class teaching and rapidly shift to distance learning, running online seminars and tutorials. 

For the Autumn 2020 term, universities across Germany and Europe are expected to use blended learning, which is a mix of online and face-to-face teaching methods. To be eligible for a student visa to come to Germany, international students must have at least some in-person teaching this year. 

Akos Kiraly, director of marketing and recruitment at Lancaster University Leipzig, says his university will offer a hybrid system where it will distribute classes on campus, as well as online through Zoom.

Alexander Pfisterer, lecturer at the University of Mannheim, recording a digital business lecture in April. Photo: DPA

“This year has been a challenge for all of us,” Kiraly says. “Generally speaking, we have adapted to the situation and are welcoming international students in the fall term. Most of the universities are prepared to teach completely online or in a hybrid model and can switch to online delivery if it’s necessary at short notice.”

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How (and where) to enroll in a Master's programme in Germany

Maxwell Shukuya, a student from the US who is doing a Mmaster’s in Cologne, says online learning can be tricky for international students.

“All of my classes were online last semester, and barring any unforeseen updates, the next semester will be online, too,” he says. “It wasn’t horrible, but it makes finding friends and practicing German difficult.”

However, Kiraly reassures new students that at many universities, those starting their courses online can receive additional support, such as extra tutoring and access to student support services.

No big parties – but still events

Everyday life for students in Germany and elsewhere will also be different to usual. Students shouldn’t be put off, though, Kiraly says. 

“With safety measures – such as wearing a mask and disinfectant – we can still arrange events and social gatherings,” he says.

“We know a big part of student life is meeting others. So even if it’s not the same, we are confident we’ll be able to provide events and gatherings. These won’t be big parties or gatherings any more, of course, but [gatherings in] a smaller circle.”

READ ALSO: 10 words that perfectly sum up student life in Germany

Many of the things that make Germany a popular study destination remain. The relatively affordable cost of tuition – usually around around €350 per semester – and living was a big factor in Shukuya’s decision to study in Cologne, he says. 

“I really appreciate that the education here is affordable. Not only do students receive an all-inclusive transportation ticket every semester, but they also have access to subsidized cafes, sports classes and gyms.”

Since June this year, foreign students within Germany can also apply for an interest-free loan of up to €650 per month to help facilitate their studies. 

Germany is an open minded study destination that offers unique opportunities, Kiraly says. “We offer one of the best educations worldwide, with an English taught offering.”

Student Constantin Pittruff watching a lecture from home in Sinzing, Bavaria in April. Photo: DPA

'Nightmarish bureaucracy'

Shukuya does have some frustrations with the German higher education system, though.

“Some professors can be fairly distant,” he says. “For example, office hours often seem rushed and straight-to-the-point.

“Straightforward things like signing up for classes and figuring out what exam you need to take for a certain module are way more complicated than they need to be, thanks to a pretty nightmarish bureaucracy. It often seems like no one, not even the instructors themselves, knows what to do.”

READ ALSO: EU students turn to Germany as a top study destination in light of Brexit

But overall, Shukuya is pleased to be able to study in Germany. “It’s a good idea to learn as much German as possible before getting here though,” he says. 

Blöss says he doesn’t want students to be put off from studying internationally because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“Personally I would say if you can make it happen, still come and study abroad,” he says. “If you can do it later, then do it later, but don’t cancel your plans altogether. 

“This is a challenge that can be overcome,” he says. “That’s the message we want to communicate to everyone we encounter.”