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Refugees in higher education – a personal perspective

  • 6 April 2022
  • By Kate Allan

Kate Allan is a Principal Associate at Mills & Reeve LLP.

In 2018, I was lucky enough to spend some time volunteering in Calais with organisations supporting refugees there.  At that point in their journey, the refugees were away from the danger that had caused them to flee their homes, but far from safety. The support was essential, providing hot food, clothing, firewood and tents.

The reality in Calais was sobering. Tents had to be replaced every few days as the border security forces destroyed or confiscated them. Donated clothing was sorted into what would be useful, and that which would be rejected. Clothing that was too light in colour would not allow for refugees to hide from the security forces; coats that were too long made it too hard for them to run.

We saw groups of young men queuing each morning for the roadside portaloos, being ‘moved on’ by security forces, or clustering around fires in the bitter evenings.

Volunteers worked long days keeping the kitchen going, sorting, mending, chopping firewood, and checking tents were usable. The rule was that you would not pass on anything you would not use yourself.  Dignity was important.

I do not know how many of the people we saw, or fed for a while, made it safely to the UK.  The vast majority were likely intending to cross the Channel in small boats or squeeze themselves onto lorries at the port. 

Under the Nationality and Borders Bill as currently drafted, those boats could be pushed back to France, and people arriving in the UK by those means could be criminalised, and deprived of their Refugee Convention (1951) rights.

Even for those crossing the Channel by less dangerous means, the Bill, unamended, will give the Home Secretary the power to declare asylum applications inadmissible on the basis the refugee could have sought refuge elsewhere on their journey.

Lord Cormack has said the bill was ‘largely unnecessary … narrow, mean minded and at times approaches the vindictive’ and is ‘in danger of breaching international law but also international humanity’.

Once refugees do make it to the UK, many wish to continue their education or to re-train, particularly noting that of the estimated 26.4 million refugees worldwide, over half are under 18.  A pre-existing refugee crisis has of course been further exacerbated by the war in Ukraine.

An example from a Guardian article last year is the story of one Afghan man then in a camp in Calais.  ‘I’m not a drug dealer, or a terrorist, or a bad man.  I just want my human rights.  My ambition is to study in the UK.  I would like to be a town planner.’

The issue is helpfully summarised by UCAS:

People who are seeking asylum in the UK are often locked out of university. Most are classed as international students, meaning that they are charged higher fees. On top of this, most are ineligible for student loans and do not have the right to work to earn money to pay their fees or cover their living costs. Equal access to higher education is a right, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – but it is not a reality for people in the UK who have been forced to flee their homes because of war and persecution.

In brief, some areas in which displaced people may have different or additional needs within Higher Education are:


Most asylum seekers will be considered overseas students, while most refugees (someone whose claim for asylum has been recognised) are eligible for home fees. However it is at the discretion of each university to charge home fees for asylum seekers, and many do exercise that discretion including Queen Mary University of London, University of Bath, Middlesex University London, and University of Manchester.


Asylum seekers will not normally be entitled to access UK student loans, while those granted refugee status usually will. Student Action for Refugees (‘STAR’) is a charity seeking to address this. STAR provides the positive news that over 70 UK universities offer scholarships for refugee and asylum-seeking students to allow them to study.

Note though that asylum seekers who are in receipt of support from the Home Office will normally have that support reduced, or even removed, in response to other income they receive.


Refugees may face difficulties with providing referees and proving their qualifications during the application process.  They may well have had to flee their homes quickly.  Institutions therefore need to develop policies that allow staff discretion.

HEIs have Recognition of Prior Learning policies but another source of potential help is the European Qualifications Passport for Refugees. This provides an assessment of qualifications based on available documentation and a structured interview, along with information on the applicant’s work experience and language proficiency.


Accommodation may be needed all year round. 


Mentoring can support all aspects of the student journey, but particularly with making applications and settling into a new area.


Refugee students by definition are likely to have faced hardship & trauma and these may result in emotional or mental health concerns.

The support systems provided for international students and by widening access teams can provide the necessary infrastructure, but additional support may also be required. Having a designated person to refer to is helpful. 

The University of East London launched a Refugee Mental Health and Wellbeing Portal in June 2016, aimed at providing easy access to practical tools and resources available across the UK.


It is worth highlighting that this process allows the HEI to take into account issues such as ongoing uncertainty with asylum applications.


Asylum seeking graduates may face restrictions on their right-to-work, and may benefit from support writing CVs, applying for jobs, and preparing for interviews.


Sign-posting the support available to refugees together in one place on a dedicated web-page is helpful. However it is important that students are not defined by their refugee status and support for refugees should, where possible, be comparable to the support offered for other vulnerable or non-traditional groups. Just as in Calais, dignity is important.


Other recent related HEPI output includes:

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