This article is more than 1 year old

How can we support refugees into higher education?

It's not easy for refugees to access higher education. Liam Carson sets out what universities can do to help.
This article is more than 1 year old

Liam Carson is Postgraduate Diversity Lead Officer for PGR Contextual Admissions at the University of Leeds

In 2019, the UN Refugee Agency announced its ambitious 15by30 target, aiming to increase the worldwide enrolment of refugees in higher education to 15 per cent by 2030.

Incredible progress has been made in the three years since, but there’s still a long way to go.

There are no regulatory frameworks governing the support available to forcibly displaced students in UK higher education. The Universities of Sanctuary initiative has gone some way to standardising things among accredited institutions – but their offer can still vary quite substantially.

So in the absence of any real oversight, there are a few things we might consider when working toward the 15by30 goal.

Rethinking outreach

A lack of support and encouragement was identified by UNICEF as the most prevalent overarching barrier to accessing education among forcibly displaced young people. Their research also found that persistent support over an extended period, ideally from the same person, is one of the most effective ways to tackle it.

One-off talks or campus visits (no matter how inspirational) won’t cut it, meaning our outreach programmes may require some rethinking.

And it’s about more than just dispensing information. We can’t assume that we have all of the answers or that applicants simply don’t understand the system. It’s vital that we work to understand the barriers they face and tackle them together.

This can take time and it’s often messy, but there are important lessons we can learn from brilliant student-led projects like NEST whose outreach is as much about socialising and fostering intercultural connection as it is about providing advice and guidance.

This is the ideal environment in which to forge the authentic and trusting relationships that make partnership working possible.

It’s also worth thinking about where our outreach is targeted. Many forced migrants have already studied at undergraduate level outside of the UK and so ensuring support is accessible to those who need it could mean partnering with organisations other than schools and colleges.

Accurate information, advice and guidance

UK immigration law is needlessly complex and, often, outright hostile. So it comes as no surprise that a lack of accurate information, advice and guidance is another of the big barriers faced by forced migrants when it comes to accessing higher education.

Rules about who can and can’t study abound. Even when they’re not explicit, few of us could afford to self-fund our studies at the home rate, let alone those set for overseas students. For forcibly displaced students, the cost of university and access to financial support, is inextricably tied to immigration status.

Figuring out exactly what you’re entitled to, if anything, can feel near impossible and so it’s vital that support is available from university staff with a firm grasp on the intricacies of the UK’s immigration and student finance systems.

This is, of course, specialist work – involving complex legal frameworks that often leave professionals stumped. At the very least, proper training is required to ensure the information shared with prospective students is accurate.

(More) funding

Poverty is a massive issue for the UK’s forced migrant community, particularly those who don’t have permission to work and are expected to survive on support payments of just £37.75 a week. It might not sound like much, but when the price of a bus ticket can dictate whether or not university is a feasible option, advocating for even a few more ringfenced scholarships each year could make a big difference – particularly if it means application rounds can be staggered.

Depending on when a prospective student arrived in the UK, settled in a new place or started their university application they may have missed the deadline for many funding awards. This can be incredibly frustrating when your education has already been disrupted and you’re eager to get on.

Flexible entry requirements

While contextual admissions policies may mean that minoritised students are eligible for a reduced grade offer, they rely on an applicant ability to provide evidence of prior study. This isn’t usually an issue for home students, or international students who have chosen to relocate to the UK for university, but for forced migrants it can be a big one.

Certificates may have been lost or left behind. They may be withheld by the awarding institution for political reasons. And often there’s not much that can be done to retrieve them.

Prospective students who do have access to their certificates may be required to provide a statement of comparability (SoC) to evidence the level of their overseas study and this usually involves incurring a significant fee – usually around £50 per document.

The most obvious step universities could take to help remove these barriers would be to cover the cost of SoCs and translation services if they require prospective students to use them. Supporting those who don’t have access to their evidence may be trickier but certainly not impossible. Looking into the European Qualifications Passport for Refugees would be a good place to start.

Given the expected arrival of up to half a million forcibly displaced young people in the UK over the next five years, it’s time we gave proper consideration to their access to higher education.

The suggestions above are by no means exhaustive and, as ever, it’s worth noting that widening access won’t mean much if we don’t also commit to creating inclusive environments where minoritised students can thrive.

We know that doing so can deliver huge benefits not just for them, but their host institutions and communities.

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