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Universities should be places of safety, solidarity and empowerment

Just six percent of refugees have access to higher education. Maryam Taher explains how universities can help to increase that figure
This article is more than 1 year old

Maryam Taher is University of Sanctuary coordinator at City of Sanctuary

Education should be a right not a privilege.

But all too often financial restraints and bureaucratic hurdles stop students from a sanctuary-seeking background from applying to, accessing and then thriving at university.

Today, over a hundred million people across the world are forcibly displaced, but only six percent of those refugees have access to higher education.

Amongst those fleeing violence, persecution and war are talented scholars, unable to continue their studies or research careers.

Without support, the world risks losing their knowledge and contributions forever.

I am the coordinator of Universities of Sanctuary, a UK-wide network of university staff, lecturers, academics, students and people with lived experience of seeking sanctuary in the UK. Together we are working to make higher education institutions places of safety, solidarity and empowerment for people seeking sanctuary.

Universities not only have a vital role to play in ensuring that people who are seeking sanctuary are able to access higher education, and also in catalysing welcome in wider society. Universities and student-run groups are key in leading on activities, campaigns and research which shift the narrative about refugees locally and globally.

I work closely with universities on the journey they take in becoming a University of Sanctuary – an accolade which recognises the institutions which go above and beyond to show welcome for people forced to flee.

Whether it’s committing to providing scholarships for students from a sanctuary-seeking background, offering placement opportunities for at-risk academics or undertaking research about forced displacement to counter xenophobia and racism – to be formally recognised, a university must show that it has made real term policy changes, commitments and culture shifts to be a place of welcome for all. And I’m there every step of the way. It is incredibly inspiring.


In 2016, Newcastle University launched North East Solidarity and Teaching (N.E.S.T), a multi-award winning and internationally-recognised student-led volunteering project. The project sees university students work with the refugee and asylum-seeking community in the North East to provide one-to-one English teaching, group English classes, sports, creative arts and trips across the region. Through N.E.S.T, sanctuary seekers gain confidence in their language skills, find new friends and family, and become better integrated into the community.

The Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice at Sheffield Hallam University launched a Refugee Rights Hub in 2018. This project offers free legal support to refugees, assisting the most vulnerable clients in family reunification cases. Since its formation, the project has helped more than 1000 family members from all over the world in making applications to join loved ones in the UK. This project is a beacon for their University of Sanctuary work because it engages and works with both university membership and local community to promote human rights issues.

These are just a snapshot of just some of the varied ways in which universities have stepped up.

Lived experience

In January we held our fourth annual conference, this year hosted by the University of Edinburgh – an awarded University of Sanctuary. This was a truly unique gathering bringing together universities, policy makers, NGOs and people with lived experience of forced migration. More than a third of all the conference attendees had lived experience themselves, contributing to the conversation as students, campaigners, university and third sector professionals.

Together we are working to improve access to higher education for those forcibly displaced and reach the globally agreed UNHCR target of fifteen percent of refugees being able to access higher education by 2030.

The Universities of Sanctuary network was launched in 2015 following the start of the war in Syria and the increase of people seeking sanctuary in the UK. Since then, and in light of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and Russia’s war in Ukraine, the need for universities to be havens of safety has only increased.

The need has greatly increased, but so has the sector’s desire to step up. Right now sixty universities either have the University of Sanctuary award or are working towards it, that’s well over a third of all UK universities – this is a real sea change in the sector. There are also now 85 universities with sanctuary scholarships – that’s around half of all UK universities.The impact of this is huge.

Our dream is that all UK universities will make commitments towards people seeking sanctuary – with your support we can make that dream a reality. We’re doing this work on a shoestring, you can support this network of welcome by donating, and you can find out more and get your university involved.

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