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Ukraine one year on: how the HE sector can support those displaced by conflict

A year on from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Leonie Ansems de Vries and Nicole Mennell call on universities to adopt sustainable sanctuary frameworks for all those affected by conflict and displacement
This article is more than 1 year old

Leonie Ansems de Vries is a Reader in International Politics, Director of the King’s Sanctuary Programme and chair of the Migration Research Group at King’s College London

Nicole Mennell is the Sanctuary Programme Manager at King’s College London

The invasion of Ukraine mobilised the UK higher education sector into action to support students and academics affected by the conflict. It has also renewed the question of how the sector can build long-term, sustainable sanctuary frameworks.

The sector’s response to this particular conflict can and should be utilised to develop broader sanctuary frameworks for students, academics and institutions affected by conflict and displacement across the globe.

It has been heartening to see the many different sanctuary initiatives that have emerged and been expanded across the HE sector in the past year in response to the invasion of Ukraine, including institutional twinning, scholarship programmes and university sponsorship. In addition, through sharing expert analysis, academics have helped to create a better understanding of the conflict.

Here, the focus is on university sponsorship, whereby displaced students, academics and their families are offered a safe route to the UK and holistic support to continue their lives and academic journeys, as discussed in more detail in a previous article. This work is part of a broader, research-led ambition to develop HE-led safe and legal pathways across the globe.

Due to the restrictive nature of the EU and UK border regimes, many people who are forcibly displaced do not have the documents required to formally enter these spaces. As a result, many resort to irregular routes, which tend to be more lengthy, costly and dangerous. HE-led pathways enable students and academics to move around and to gain and share knowledge and expertise in similar ways as other students and academics.

The University Sponsorship Model

Having resettled a refugee family from Syria through the UK Government’s community sponsorship scheme in 2021, King’s College London’s Sanctuary Team drew on this experience to develop the University Sponsorship Model. Our approach is collaborative, working in close partnership with civil society organisations, universities and affected communities, including Citizens UK, Ukrainian Sponsorship Pathway UK (USPUK), the Open University, Newcastle University and the University of Leicester.

The University Sponsorship Model enables the higher education sector to implement the Government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme and help displaced students and academics to find safety in the UK and keep engaged with their studies and research.

The universities involved in the scheme use a relational matching process to match guests with hosts from their communities, which means we take the time to find the best fit for both guests and hosts. In addition to providing holistic support for hosts and guests on all aspects of the hosting process, teams at each partner university work to facilitate students’ access to education and enable academics to continue their research and find employment opportunities.

So far, more than 50 individuals have been sponsored by members of the King’s community, including academic fellows, students who continue to study their degrees at Ukrainian universities online and recipients of our Sanctuary Scholarships, which have been funded through a £3 million donation from leading algorithmic trading firm XTX Markets’ Academic Sanctuaries Fund.

One of the students being hosted by the King’s community is Anna, a student in English and German Languages and Literature at Oles Honchar Dnipro National University in Ukraine. Her course was moved online when war broke out. Through the place of safety provided by her host, Anna has been able to attend classes online, submit assignments and undertake exams while in the UK. She has also supported the University Sponsorship Model by helping to build the Sanctuary Programme Resource Hub for hosts and guests as part of a paid internship.

It is not only guests who feel the impacts of the scheme, Anna’s host, Dr Jennifer Stevenson (Honorary Senior Lecturer and Clinical Pharmacist in the Faculty of Life Sciences and Medicine), has described the experience as “incredibly rewarding.” Saying “our guest has demonstrated exceptional bravery and determination to succeed even in the most challenging of circumstances which reminds us daily of how fortunate we are and inspires us to take every opportunity we can.”

Building sanctuary frameworks across the HE sector

The invasion of Ukraine has renewed the momentum for developing sanctuary initiatives with the expansion of existing schemes, the emergence of new programmes and increasing collaboration across the HE, governmental and civil society sectors. We must seize this moment to build frameworks that are proactive rather than reactive and by integrating support for forcefully displaced groups (as well as other marginalised groups) into the work we do, rather than seeing it as an emergency response.

Making this shift from humanitarian gesture to core structure will require sustained, collaborative effort across the sector, drawing on existing work by organisations such as Universities of Sanctuary, Student Action for Refugees (STAR), the Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA) and Refugee Education UK (REUK). The University Sponsorship Model offers one avenue for exploring what this may look like.

We envision a collaborative sector-wide approach that includes affected communities in the conversation from the start. We are developing a model that can be scaled and adapted to other contexts and communities affected by conflict and displacement.

Finally, we are working to embed sanctuary in all core pillars of the university – research, education and social impact. This includes considering broader socio-political and policy environments.

In the UK context, this means tackling the ways in which the “hostile environment” negatively affects displaced people’s ability to access and thrive in higher education. By developing partnerships across sectors, we can enable displaced students and academics from across the world to benefit from and shape sanctuary frameworks.

Anyone who is interested in learning more about the University Sponsorship Model can sign up for the University of Leicester’s Breaking Barriers event on 9 March or the University Sponsorship Model Webinar on 29 March. For more information, contact the King’s Sanctuary Team.

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