European universities responded in different ways to the ‘refugee crisis’ of 2015. Some subscribed to the agenda of higher education (HE) as a universal human right, while others stressed different long-term benefits of offering access to it. Yet, the unprecedented sense of moral urgency that guided immediate declarations of support and subsequent actions has largely remained unaddressed. With the crisis becoming a new reality for many countries, HE has a role to play in the social inclusion of refugees, even in countries that were not attractive destinations for refugees in the past. In this article, we provide an overview of the reasons why HE institutions supported refugees, and present the results of an empirical study of Poland and Austria during the 2015–2016 academic year. We then evaluate those first responses utilizing parts of Ager and Strang’s framework of integration, and discuss issues of institutional readiness, capabilities and the public role of HE stemming from this comparison. Our findings suggest that reasons such as acknowledgement of basic rights, or utilizing social capital are insufficient to explain and understand strong integrative support measures. We propose that refugee support by HE institutions is both better understood and promoted through the language of hospitality.

DOI: 10.1177/1474904117719593
ISSN: 1474-9041