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Policymakers must not forget refugees’ higher education

  • 13 October 2020
  • By Phoebe Campbell

This blog was kindly contributed by Phoebe Campbell, a final year Classics undergraduate at the University of Cambridge.

On August 13 2020, many students in England were left devastated after opening a set of A-Level results calculated by Ofqual’s controversial algorithm. Although implemented to push back on grade inflation, this mathematical model soon faced huge backlash. The Government performed a u-turn, abandoning the algorithm and awarding results based on Centre Assessed Grades (CAGs). This followed Scotland’s move in the same direction and accusations that the algorithm discriminated against the nation’s poorest and most disadvantaged students, despite its ostensible aims being to avoid exactly that, further widening already existing inequalities.

Despite the Government’s best efforts to restore confidence in the education sector through the awarding of CAGs, some might say that this lifeline came too late. Many young people saw their dreams vanish while others still remain confused as to what the next year might hold, questioning the feasibility of sitting exams in the autumn after an extended period away from a structured learning environment.

For young asylum seekers, the A-Level fiasco represents only a fraction of the obstacles they face in applying for higher education in the UK.

Harrowing images of children forced to flee their homes and countries often making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea with only the clothes on their back are all too familiar. The crisis of forced migration is still ongoing, even worsening. In the year ending March 2020, there were 35,100 asylum applications in the UK, an 11 per cent increase from the previous year.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) enshrines the right to an inclusive, quality education for all children regardless of their country of origin or background. For children seeking sanctuary, education is transformative, providing a source of hope, safety and a gateway to a better future amid uncertainty. However, worldwide only one per cent of displaced children are in higher education. For those wishing to pursue their education further than at the secondary level, they encounter a myriad of challenges, problems which can, and should, be avoided especially in light of previous adversity.

Although all unaccompanied asylum seeking children in the UK are looked after by local authorities until they turn 18, their immigration status is less secure after this. Since their residence may only be deemed temporary, perhaps due to not yet being granted refugee status, they are unable to access finances to pay for tuition or living costs. To make things even harder, they are not allowed to work, confined to survive on government financial support of £37.75 a week, amounting to only £5.39 a day to spend on food, sanitation and clothing.  Since these young people are from abroad, they are often classified as overseas students and therefore are subject to international fees significantly larger than those for home students.

Many universities and further education colleges also require English language requirements and previous educational documentation such as transcripts before students can embark on their chosen course. Many young refugees no longer have access to this required documentation, having been forced to flee political upheaval, war or natural disasters with very little notice.

This all appears rather dire, especially in the wake of a global pandemic. However, all hope is not lost. Prior to the pandemic, universities were already providing critical aid to support refugees and asylum seekers in the UK to fulfil their potential by accessing higher education.

The University of Sanctuary scheme is one way which higher education institutions can implement strategies to help these young people. The scheme, set up by City of Sanctuary in partnership with refugee organisations, aims to build a culture of welcome and belonging for refugee students in the higher education sector. The ideas at the heart of the scheme coincide with the values of most higher education institutions: their unwavering commitment to inclusivity, diversity and sustainability.

Since September 2017, the University of Exeter has put in place Sanctuary scholarships for refugees and those seeking asylum: a full waiver for tuition fees; £9,500 per year for living costs; and a commitment to support the beneficiaries of the scholarship even after graduation.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Edinburgh has stressed its plans to strengthen the community of sanctuary by offering regular group meetings supported by the University chaplaincy. Similarly, other universities have made changes to the normally compulsory international English language testing system (IELTS) by allowing alternative arrangements such as admitting those with lower expected scores or licensing Duolingo courses as an appropriate language qualification to allow for a more flexible and fairer admissions process.

As COVID-19 exposes, even exacerbates, an existing problem, we should perhaps see it as an opportunity to reassess the changes necessary to support refugees and asylum seekers access higher education.

Owing to their privileged position in society and in their respective communities, universities and other higher education institutions should take the lead in setting an example, encouraging others to foster an inclusive environment. There needs to be flexible approaches that do not deter refugees from applying. It is clear that we need a dynamic yet tailored approach such as recognising asylum seekers as home students or partnering with the private sector for greater funding for scholarships.

Secondly, we must ensure that the voices of displaced young people are heard by policymakers. However, an awareness is also needed of the potential barriers to this. For example, some refugee students may feel worried about criticising an institution and thus universities should implement anonymous feedback, reassuring students that any feedback they give will not have ramifications for any future study or support.

To support students effectively, there must be continuity. This could be achieved in the form of ongoing mentoring and academic support, preferably from the same person, prior to, during and after university. This would be particularly useful during UCAS applications, an undoubtedly stressful process for anyone applying for higher education, but perhaps made more so by ‘the cumulative pressure of completing multiple scholarship applications alongside UCAS’. For 2021 entry in England, the application fee is £20 for a single university choice and £26 for more than one choice . Measures such as waiving these fees for refugees would not represent a significant financial hit to UCAS, but would have a profound impact on supporting these young people.

While supporting refugees is a long and somewhat difficult process, it seems that higher education institutions might start with these three steps:

  1. joining the University of Sanctuary scheme;
  2. collaborating with the private sector for scholarship funding for refugees and young asylum seekers;
  3. reviewing their practices for these young people in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.


  1. As a former refugee myself, I cannot emphasize strongly enough the value of this contribution. Thank you, Ms Phoebe Campbell!

  2. Superb article. Universities receive significant profit margins on international students, and so the least they can do is invest some of that income in providing much needed access to refugees and asylum seekers.

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