01 December 2015

Educating refugees – an investment in the future?

Dennis writes*

In August Hannelore Kraft, prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, stated in an interview: “We know that many will stay forever.”[1] Independent of one’s personal opinion about the increasing number of arriving refugees, this statement brings up the question of how to integrate admitted asylum-seekers into our societies. Naturally, these individuals will have to learn the language of the country by which they are offered asylum, and many national citizens expect them to understand and accept our norms and values. Such objectives can of course only be achieved in the long run as people have to adapt to their new homes first.

In the short term, however, we can help these people integrate and guide them in becoming full and equal members of our societies -- especially our young future fellow citizens who are still at the beginning of their educational and/or working careers. It is therefore the responsibility of the state to ease their integration and to invest into their future. Germany, for instance, which decided that refugee children, like German children, are subject to compulsory school attendance, has established a system aiming to foster the integration of these individuals. In some primary schools foreign and German children are taught in the same classes and it has turned out that multicultural interactions within this framework can benefit the community as a whole.[2] In other cases, and especially for older students, so called “welcome-classes” have been established. The aim of these courses is to give the arriving students the basic linguistic skills and the necessary knowledge to participate in regular school courses.[3] The latter policy reflects a compromise between the political and public interest to speed up integration and parents’ concerns about a possible decrease in the educational quality of their children. To finance such a program (and to master the overall costs of the refugee crisis) German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble decided to reduce next year’s budget of all federal ministries to gain an extra 500 million euros.[4]

‘Why is such an investment in the education of refugee children in our interest?’, many critics ask. In my opinion, and as my approach to this theme has shown, the answer is clear: The costs of (temporarily) employing additional teachers and financing additional learning material will be greatly outweighed by the benefits society can get from well-educated and well-integrated citizens in the future through tax-incomes, statutory welfare contributions, economic growth, etc.

To underline this position let us consider the following statistics: According to the Federal Statistical Office of Germany the annual costs of education per student lie between 5.400€ and 7.900€.[5] The average total annual tax income per person alone lies at 8.229€ [6] and thereby exceeds the costs of education. Additionally, one must not forget about the before-mentioned additional benefits of a larger well-educated workforce and the fact that the duration of educating individuals is far shorter than their working life. Since the benefits from educating young refugees exceed the current additional costs, educating refugee children can be seen as an investment in the future of our societies.

Bottom line: Establishing a sustainable and successful integration strategy with education as a major cornerstone does not only facilitate the integration process as a whole, but also lays the foundation for profiting from the current developments in the future.

* Please comment on these posts from my growth & development economics students, to help them with unclear analysis, other perspectives, data sources, etc.

  1. “'Wir wissen, dass viele für immer bleiben werden',” Rheinische Post, August 23, 2015, accessed November 14, 2015, http://www.rp-online.de/nrw/landespolitik/hannelore-kraft-viele-fluechtlinge-bleiben-fuer-immer-aid-1.5333275.
  2. Heike Klovert, “Flüchtlinge Retten Grundschule: Syrische Kinder Für Golzow,” Spiegel Online, September 10, 2015, accessed November 16, 2015, http://www.spiegel.de/schulspiegel/kinder-von-golzow-fluechtlinge-retten-grundschule-a-1052017.html.
  3. Sabine Menkens, “Wie Flüchtlingskinder in Willkommensklassen Lernen,” Die Welt, September 14, 2015, accessed November 14, 2015, http://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article146404309/Wie-Fluechtlingskinder-in-Willkommensklassen-lernen.html.
  4. “Wegen Flüchtlingskrise: Schäuble plant 500-Millionen-Euro-Sparpaket,” Focus Online Money, September 15, 2015, accessed November 14, 2015, http://www.focus.de/finanzen/news/bericht-wegen-fluechtlingskrise-schaeuble-plant-500-millionen-euro-sparpaket_id_4947248.html.
  5. Statistisches Bundesamt, Bildungsausgaben: Ausgaben Je Schülerin Und Schüler 2012 (Wiesbaden: Statistisches Bundesamt, 2015), accessed November 15, 2015, https://www.destatis.de/DE/Publikationen/Thematisch/BildungForschungKultur/BildungKulturFinanzen/AusgabenSchueler5217109127004.pdf;jsessionid=CEBA6006C9F75A28C3D556A9F4341264.cae4?__blob=publicationFile.
  6. Andreas Barth, “Steueruhr Zu Den Jährlichen Steuereinnahmen Deutschlands,” Haushaltssteuerung.de, accessed November 15, 2015, http://www.haushaltssteuerung.de/steueruhr.html.


  1. Good point Dennis! I agree with you for the most part but I want to play devil's advocate.

    We all agree that education is the best investment a nation can make. Children are the future of the country and how ready they are for it will indeed affect economic performance. Refugee children are not an exception, the better they are prepared for life in the society they reside in, the better.

    You quote: "We know that many will stay forever". We know that some will stay but we can only speculate how many, or can we?

    Don't you think educating the children of immigrants has an impact on their desire to stay once they have grown up? You say that an investment now will pay of in the future, but can it be that refugees stay longer, and thus cost more, if we educate them?

    The answer is no, because a well educated immigrant is an asset to an economy and not a liability. This kind of thinking would lead us to conclude that all children being educated and are not geniuses should not be educated. However, the question remains. Does educating refugees cause them to stay longer?

  2. Hey Dennis, I really liked (and agreed with!) your post. However, I'd like to question a small language point, which potentially affects your argument.

    Integration: this tends to be understood as integrating a new culture within and alongside the German culture, hence making Germany more multicultural. You discuss having migrant children learn from the same curriculum, in the German language, in German schools. This is not integration but assimilation.

    Assimilation is taking and essentially eliminating the migrant culture, and helping young people to learn and practice the German culture. You said that multiculturalism is increased when foreign and German children are in the same class. Surely, multiculturalism only increases if the different cultures and languages are validated and acknowledged by the curriculum?

    When discussing funding for education, the debate between integration and assimilation is vital - it affects how taxpayers view the spending of their money, and the foreign sensitivity of the policy. Whilst you seem to support funding for assimilation policies in education, I would be curious to know what you think of genuine integration policies, and their economic effect?

  3. Hi Dennis, I enjoyed reading your post and think that it highlights an important aspect of the refugee debate!

    Responding also to Samuel's comment, I think that it is important to distinguish between integration into the labour market and integration into society. Stimulating integration into the labour market can be considered a valuable economic investment for both a refugee and the German government in this case. If a refugee wishes to build a sustainable future within Germany, labour market integration is most likely essential.

    On the other hand, however, integration into German society as a whole is a more controversial area, as Samuel mentioned. Forcing people to integrate into society through education programs could be seen as assimilation and against a refugee's will.

    I therefore think that education programs should be sensitive to this distinction and perhaps focus primarily on labour market integration. This way, integration into society is left as a personal choice for a refugee (which, of course, is also debatable).


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