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Higher education now must bring policy on refugees in from the fringes

  • 16 March 2022
  • By Michael Natzler

Michael Natzler, formerly HEPI’s Policy Officer, explores the state of higher education refugee policy. Michael is a consultant at Nous Group and writes in a personal capacity. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Natzler.

As the sector convenes today at the Universities UK International (UUKi) Higher Education Forum, attendees will be focussing on ‘identifying and responding to emerging challenges’. Many might have expected the policy backdrop to this conference to have been different, perhaps reflecting on what comes next after surpassing the 2030 recruitment target in the International Education Strategy. Few would have predicted that the domestic arrival of the Government’s response to Augar would be, in Diana Beech’s words, ‘an assault on the values [of] higher education’; and fewer still would have foreseen that internationally it would be overshadowed by the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War Two.

Dr Uilleam Blacker outlined on the HEPI blog last week how UK universities are responding to the Ukraine crisis and argued that the sector should reflect on other European countries’ reactions, especially Poland’s coordinated response, while acknowledging the different national contexts. Dr Blacker paints a picture of the UK higher education sector carrying out many bottom-up initiatives and calls for more coordinated institutional and national responses. No doubt, if the agenda for the UUKi conference today could be redrawn, ‘Responding to the Ukraine Crisis’ might well have been on it.

The UK will welcome hundreds of thousands of displaced people from Hong Kong, Afghanistan and Ukraine

But there is another longer-term challenge for the sector, although no less immediate. Alongside Ukraine, in the last 18 months there have been the beginnings of two other large movements of displaced people to the UK, from Hong Kong and Afghanistan.

Over the next five years, the UK could see as many as half a million displaced people come to the UK from Ukraine, Hong Kong and Afghanistan.

Over the next five years, the UK could see as many as half a million displaced people come to the UK from these three regions alone.

For context, of the 5.7 million Syrian refugees worldwide, just 28,000 have settled in the UK from Syria and the surrounding region since 2014. What the UN Refugee Agency described as the ‘largest formal resettlement programme that the UK has undertaken in the modern era’ pales in comparison to the hundreds of thousands expected to come to the UK from Hong Kong, Afghanistan and Ukraine. Nor are these three displacements an anomalous spike. Rather, global bodies predict displacement will increase as global warming further intensifiesWith the softening of the UK population’s attitudes to immigration, more displaced people will come to the UK. 

Many questions, challenges and opportunities for UK higher education emerge from this trend. They range from universities’ roles supporting displaced people abroad and in the UK, speaking to the civic, educational and research roles of universities. It is an important moment for the sector to assess how to react to the immediate challenges of Ukraine and Hong Kong particularly, while being aware that further displacements will follow. The sector should consider now how best to lay the groundwork for strong responses to future crises of displaced people and prepare for what will be an important element of international higher education for the foreseeable future.  

Higher education would benefit from more cross-sector leadership on this issue 

This is not a matter of UK universities needing to start supporting displaced people, as many already do to great effect: Student Action for Refugees (STAR) have worked with universities to ensure more than 70 universities offer scholarships for asylum seekers and refugees. Furthermore, UUKi’s July 2021 paper, Higher Education and Displaced People: A Guide for UK Universities outlines the wider work universities do to support displaced people abroad (notably King’s College London’s PADILEA among a host of other programmes) and domestically in the UK (the University of Edinburgh, the University of Bath and the University of East London are three notable examples). Universities should certainly continue with this work, whether it sits within their core strategy or is a part of their civic strategy. In some cases, it might be straightforward for universities to intensify their efforts, for example, supporting more student-led volunteering and sharing of university facilities with displaced people.   

However, there are some aspects of how higher education institutions respond to displaced peoples that need to adapt more substantially to be appropriate for the new context. In early 2021, UUKi recommended that ‘institutions should seek to develop their own individual response’ to displaced people taking note that ‘every institution will have its own set of strategic priorities, strengths and capabilities’. It is a valuable paper and many of its findings still hold true around institutions choosing to engage how they best see fit. However, some issues are now not feasible for 150 institutions to address individually. 

One issue in particular, is how higher education institutions approach providing education to displaced people in the UK, especially with a boom of 18 year-olds within the existing UK population arriving, putting more pressure on undergraduate spaces

Two areas for consideration: fees and data

UNICEF estimate almost 50 per cent of the world’s refugees to be below the age of 18, meaning tens of thousands of young people, if not a hundred thousand displaced people from Hong Kong, Afghanistan and Ukraine will, in the UK, turn 18 throughout the 2020s and 2030s. Many will want to access higher education. The value and importance of access to higher education for many displaced people can no better be exemplified than Afghan Chevening Scholar Naimat Zafary reflecting on his journey to the UK.  

Fees and access to higher education for these thousands of British-citizens-to-be is a considerable area that needs addressing. Notably, to access student loans, those with Indefinite Leave to Remain have to wait three years, and those with Limited or Discretionary Leave to Remain or on the BNO visa route, have to wait seven years. Displaced people’s circumstances will differ and the routes for refugees from Ukraine are still becoming clear. Under the current policies, these fee barriers will mean some children who joined a UK school at 11 or 12 years old will be all but prevented from accessing higher education. There will be examples of this already from previous movements of displaced people coming to the UK, but without a coordinated response, we run the risk of the number being much higher and creating a portion of the UK population isolated from higher education which would have significant negative intergenerational effects.  

The experience of displaced students applying, studying and leaving higher education is another key area that would benefit from sector coordination. Displaced children potentially have multiple interruptions to their learning as they leave their country of origin and adapt to a new life in the UK. Again, while there are already children in this position, the number will be far greater and will make up a larger percentage of university applicants, students and graduates. As such, this group merits more attention. For many displaced people (including BNO holders), they have No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF). This means they will not be able to access Free School Meals, a widely used indicator for disadvantage. Without a coordinated response, these students might fall through the cracks. Students who have experienced displacement will be a significant subsection of UK international students in the years to come and, as Anne Marie Graham deftly outlined on the blog yesterday, if we can’t ‘demonstrate an understanding of their completion rates, their progression routes and their employment patterns’, any messaging about our intent to support ‘will ring hollow’.  

Next week, HEPI will publish a blog outlining some of the challenges facing BNO holders from Hong Kong. 

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