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Where are we now? Higher education, refugees and asylum seekers

Talent and potential aren’t linked to where we’re born. Each of us has the ability to learn and grow given the right support. So how can higher education institutions help young people from refugee or asylum seeking backgrounds flourish in our educational system?

We ask: where are we now, what are the barriers, and what can we do about it?

Globally just 1% of refugees go to university. When nearly 50 million children around the world are driven out of school because of war, this means 49.5 million children who might aspire to higher education never get the chance to take part.

In an increasingly global world, where we know that ability and potential are not linked to where we are born, perhaps we need to ask: what are the biggest barriers that young refugees and asylum seekers face in succeeding in their education? And what can we do to help them find their feet in this world?

Finance, immigration status, language, culture, simply fitting in.”

Let’s tackle barriers first. Finance, immigration status, language, culture, simply fitting in. These were some of the answers that were offered at a workshop I attended recently run by the Refugee Support Network, who provide training on how to support young refugees and asylum seekers to access higher education.

These barriers are structural. They are often beyond the control of any one person, least of all a young person finding their feet in a new country. And when you layer these challenges on top of each other – brick upon brick – you build a wall that blocks any sight of what could be possible, regardless of talent, insight or potential.

And the thing about walls is, they’re not one-dimensional. If these young people struggle to see over these barriers from their side, universities and higher education institutions will struggle to see them clearly too. Barriers exist both ways.

What are the challenges for higher education institutions?

Universities, charities, colleges and other sector bodies face complex challenges to support and understand the unique circumstances many refugees and asylum seekers find themselves in.

Some of these challenges will be the easy ones to spot, such as:

How will universities provide the best level of support for these students?

Where language barriers exist, what needs to be in place to help these students overcome this?

How will universities plan for changes to policies on immigration?

And how will universities enable these students to adjust to the UK higher education culture?

It’s the hidden challenges…the ones where there are no easy answers, that so often obscure our vision and reinforce the wall between refugees and universities.”

These are big, important questions that will influence the decisions and resources an institution can commit to supporting refugee students. It’s the hidden challenges though, the ones where there are no easy answers, that so often obscure our vision and reinforce the wall between refugees and universities. Questions like:

How do universities know who is a refugee or asylum seeker amongst their student body? And what does this distinction mean for the university and the individual?

How have refugee students’ unique experiences impacted on their emotional wellbeing? And how can universities understand and support them, and enable them to flourish?

What experiences or skills have these young people not had a chance to develop, but will be important for succeeding in their course and career?

Who will support their emotional wellbeing whilst they’re studying?

These questions are challenging because the answers aren’t tactical, i.e. we create a plan and follow it logically to its completion, evaluating impact as we go. Rather, these questions – and the answers to them – are shaped by emotional, practical and contextual circumstances, unique to each student.

For instance, it may be simple to ask who amongst a student body has refugee status, but it wasn’t until recently that UCAS added a box for applicants to use to indicate this. And whilst this is a positive step to enable universities to understand the potential needs and immigration status of incoming students, how does it serve these students’ needs in equal measure?

Many refugees and asylum seekers may not want to identify as such for fear it will count against them. Perhaps they are right to be cautious, when immigration rules are apt to change depending on the mood of the home office migration policy (as they have done in the last few years). Fear of misunderstanding of their immigration status, or social and cultural bias – conscious or unconscious too – can discourage young people from ticking this box.

Each question is complex, each person’s situation more so. This is Asif’s* story:

Asif’s story

This year, Asif graduated with a BSc in Engineering from a leading UK university. Having escaped the war in his own country, Asif arrived in the UK at 16 years old. With limited and disrupted education to this point, Asif had never had to draw before. He hadn’t even doodled. So when it came to create technical drawings during his degree, Asif had to learn this from scratch. Supported by one of his tutors, Asif learned to draw and went on to excel in his studies, graduating this summer.

Hidden barriers like these are part of the unique experiences of refugees and young asylum seekers as they progress through their education. The challenge for universities will be to spot where these barriers come up, and to support these students not just to survive but thrive in our educational system.

What’s being done across the sector?

Whilst the situation is complicated, there’s lots of brilliant work being done across higher education to support and reach these individuals.

There are 10 universities across the UK which are Universities of Sanctuary, institutions that are actively developing a culture and practice of welcome for refugees and asylum seekers. At Birkbeck University of London the Compass Project offers advice and guidance to people wanting to access higher education, as well as running a sanctuary scholarship for up to 20 people.

Similarly the University of East London runs the Olive project, a 10 week course to introduce refugees and asylum seekers to higher education.

Besides these, there are numerous scholarships within universities that are built around the needs of these students – from covering the cost of a course and supporting living costs, to emotional wellbeing and integration.

There’s also lots going on outside the sector to help both universities and refugee students make sense of current policies and understand the pathways to access education. For instance, the Refugee Support Network runs workshops to help people working in the sector to understand the financial, legal and emotional challenges refugees and asylum seekers face, and to make decisions that are informed by current policy.

What can we do next?

We can start with one of our strongest assets – our collaborative spirit.”

So where can we, as a higher education sector as a whole, go from here to better reach students from these vulnerable backgrounds?

We can start with one of our strongest assets – our collaborative spirit.

If, amongst our institutions, we’re able to share our experiences to better understand how we can support these students, and use this to tap into their educational aspirations and potential, we can begin to knock through those walls that stand between these students and their future, brick by brick.

By pooling our collective knowledge and approaches we can make better choices that are more efficient for our universities – instead of trying to solve these problems alone we can act with greater certainty and intention, and come to better solutions quicker.

Critically, we can also enhance how we can meet the needs of the students. Because within all this, it’s essential that we don’t lose sight of the context and experiences of their unique journeys through life so far: the resilience, courage and determination for a brighter future and desire for education is monumental.

When we knock down these walls, we’ll see our common humanity on both sides – not a tick box or immigration status – but a picture of what could be for these students, and for our institutions too. Whether it’s championing budding aeronautical engineers, researchers in medieval art, students of veterinary science or inspiring the next generation of philosophers, we’ll not only be adding to our global, collective knowledge, but we’ll be creating communities of diverse and brilliant experience right on our campuses.

Ultimately, when we tear down this wall, we can use the rubble to help these young people build their own pathway toward a secure and self-determined future.

If you would like to find out more about….
The Refugee Support Network run events for people working in higher education that explore the nuances of different immigration status’ and explain the latest policies affecting refugee students entering higher education.

*name changed to protect his identity

By Louise Clifton

Louise is the former Director of Marketing, Communications and Operations at Invisible Grail. Louise’s passion is to help people bring alive the stories that show the wider world who they are and why what they do matters.

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