Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

FULL VERSION: Universities of Sanctuary offer hope to asylum seekers and refugees

  • 25 October 2019
  • By Forward Maisokwadzo

Fatima’s is a remarkable story, one of lucky escapes and pure determination that has taken her from her home country Syria to a refugee camp in Jordan and then to Greece in search of a safe haven before coming to the UK. Life here was hard.

I have experienced stigma and prejudice. I suffered from depression and anxiety. My life became a vicious circle. We had lost everything, we had no money, no rights and I couldn’t speak English. I then realised that nothing was going to change if I don’t motivate myself. I started to learn English and apply to Universities.

Today, the 27-year-old who did not want her real name published, is one of many students at the University of Bristol benefitting from the University’s Sanctuary Scholarship scheme set up to help people seeking sanctuary in the UK access higher education.

It is an opportunity Fatima says has given her a new life.

I can’t describe how grateful I am to the University for offering me a Sanctuary Scholarship, to support my almost forgotten dream to go to University as it was cut short when war broke out in Syria. I feel welcome and happy in Bristol.

To those who work in the refugee sector, Fatima’s experience is a familiar story. This is why City of Sanctuary, working with other organisations including STAR, RefuAID, CARA and the Refugee Support Network, has set up the Universities of Sanctuary stream.

The Universities of Sanctuary stream recognises good practice in universities in the UK which fosters a culture, and a practice, of welcome for people seeking sanctuary. Some Higher Education Institutions (HEI) are located in communities with active City of Sanctuary networks, whilst others are playing a key role in catalysing welcome beyond their campuses. Universities, of course, also offer cutting edge research important to guide wider policy change.

Barriers to accessing higher education for people seeking sanctuary

Listening to Fatima and other countless stories of asylum seekers and refugees it highlights a myriad of challenges they face to accessing higher education. The following are just a few of these.


Asylum seekers are often classified as overseas students by HEIs and as such must pay international fees. They also cannot access student finance to pay for their tuition or living costs. Asylum seekers are not allowed to work, and they can become destitute when government financial support is stopped. This is why City of Sanctuary has joinedLift the Ban Coalition which calls upon Government to allow people seeking asylum who have been waiting for more than six months for a decision on their claim the opportunity to work.

As City of Sanctuary network we have over 120 groups across UK who sees first-hand the damaging impact that being disqualified from working has on both the individuals concerned and their relationships with the wider community. The current policy of an enforced 12-month waiting period before allowing applications to work and the restriction of those permissions to jobs on the – already very limited – Shortage Occupation List is, in effect, a ban on work for asylum seekers.

Rather than asylum-related policies which are apparently arbitrary, we need comprehensive support systems which help those who seek asylum to navigate life here and to become active members of their local communities by allowing them to work and study.

Even for students with refugee status, their circumstances as highlighted by Fatima’s story, means that they are rarely financially secure.

Educational documentation

Many students encounter problems when it comes to the documentation required by universities. Often people have had to disrupt their studies part-way through or have lost their transcripts or certificates during their displacement. Universities should be mindful of this when it comes to assessing applications and, where possible, find ways to ascertain grades in different way if transcript evidence can’t be given. Equally they may be able to overlook incomplete records if enough proof of qualifications can be shown through circumstantial evidence and ability.

There are examples in which universities have made allowances for transcript discrepancies within the City of Sanctuary network, such as the University of Bristol which includes this information on its webpage for prospective students:

We understand that your studies may have been interrupted, that you might not have evidence of your previous qualifications or that your qualifications aren’t transferable.


Even once people are offered places at their chosen university, the offers are often conditional on an English language requirement, meaning that many people are unable to take up their offer of study like Fatima. The tests and scores required vary among universities but almost all tests cost money. We are currently working with Password to find ways to overcome this barrier. This exam fee, and the associated cost of the lessons to get someone to the right level can be a final, dispiriting hurdle for many who are so close to pursuing their futures.

As such, it is important that universities are clear on which courses genuinely require the student to undertake such exams to avoid unnecessary costs to the student or ‘over-compliance’.

The implications of immigration status

A person’s immigration status can mean they are subject to reporting requirements, can be detained in an immigration removal facility and face the threat of deportation.

Just like Fatima, people awaiting a decision on their asylum application to remain in the UK are required to regularly sign on at their local reporting centre, which is often many miles away. This can limit an individual’s ability to accept a University place if it is too far from their reporting centre. We aware some universities only offer scholarships to people based locally and an increasing number are offering distance courses but we really want the Home Office to be more flexible on reporting requirements to people seeking sanctuary in full-time university studies.

Mental health

Many people seeking sanctuary share a history of multiple traumas which may display in many ways. Whilst in some people it is not immediately obvious, it is important to be aware of some of the signs of stress and to have a clear process to support someone.

What is a University of Sanctuary?

A University of Sanctuary is a place where everyone feels safe, welcome and able to pursue their right to education. Currently, there are twelve HEIs recognised as Universities of Sanctuary with many more working towards recognition. In addition, over 70 universities are currently offering some form of scholarship to improve access to Higher Education for forced migrants.

Equal access to HE is enshrined in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Access to education can be fundamental to a person’s ability to integrate allowing them to meet new people, build professional networks, gain meaningful employment at a suitable level and contribute to their new society. As outlined in this article, many people who are forced to flee to the UK, find it difficult to navigate financial, cultural and institutional barriers.

As well as scholarships, universities are finding many other ways to create a culture of welcome including through curricula in multiple departments, training for staff and students, free access to facilities, supporting campaigns and in many other ways. You can find some brief case studies here.

Why become a University of Sanctuary?

David Attenborough stressed the importance of his alma mater, Leicester University, becoming a university of Sanctuary at their centenary celebrations last November.

Sir David said:

it is not just money that supports this university, this university as the city itself, is notable for its general humanity and support of the community in which it is placed…I believe it will continue, because you have now become a University of Sanctuary.

Becoming a University of Sanctuary brings a wealth of benefits to an institution, staff, students and local community. It contributes to progress in inclusion, diversity and sustainability. And, as Professor Nick Gill said at the recent Universities of Sanctuary conference, ‘Human Rights are more important than league tables.’

Fatima also hopes she can use her studies to give something back. ‘Bristol, one day I’ll repay you.’

For more information on Universities of Sanctuary or e-mail: [email protected].

For a list of higher education institutions offering scholarships and bursaries visit STAR’s page here.

For a full set of resources from the Article 26 campaign (now part of Universities of Sanctuary) visit this page.

Sign up to the Sanctuary jiscmail list to join the conversation about Universities of Sanctuary. 

Universities of Sanctuary and STAR are currently calling on all HEIs in the UK to commit to improving access to higher education in the lead up to World Access to Higher Education Day on November 26th and the Global Refugee Forum in December. For more information and to sign the pledge please click here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *