Widening access and creating opportunities in higher education for people who have fled persecution and sought asylum in the UK

Rebecca Murray

In this article Rebecca, from Article 26 – a project of the Helena Kennedy Foundation – explains her experience of widening access to higher education for students in the UK who have sought asylum.

In 1951, following the Second World War and the horrific persecution suffered by Jews and other minority groups, the UK signed the United Nations Refugee Convention. This gives every individual the right to seek safety and apply for refugee status in the UK. According to convention’s criteria, claims for asylum are considered from people who have been forced to leave their country of nationality due to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. However, the rights enshrined in legislation can prove difficult to assert in reality. The asylum application process in the UK is characterised by inefficiency and is subject to frequent legislative changes. The result is that asylum applicants spend an increasing number of years in ‘limbo’ awaiting a decision, appealing a decision, or receiving ongoing awards of temporary status which denies them citizenship and the opportunity to rebuild their lives and access higher education.

Article 26 is a project which takes its name from the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which states that access to higher education should be based on merit. The project works with universities to provide a package of support to enable access to higher education for students who have sought asylum. Article 26 is committed to improving access to university, as we believe higher education plays a pivotal role in transforming the lives of individuals and contributes to building a stronger society.

Students from an asylum-seeking background, who are either still in the application process or have been awarded a period of temporary rather than permanent status, are classified as international students and thus pay fees that are often twice as high as those paid by UK-based ‘home’ students. They are also denied access to student finance and therefore have no means to fund their studies. Such barriers render higher education an impossible dream for many asylum seekers, but for a group of young campaigners they presented an irresistible challenge.

Early beginnings
In 2005, I was responsible for the Manchester branch of ‘Brighter Futures’, a self-advocacy project established by Save the Children. The project aimed not just to listen to the needs and wishes of asylum-seeking young people, but to support them to campaign for measurable, concrete change. One of the members, Masoud, was particularly outspoken about the need to change university policy and practice in relation to access for asylum seekers. Masoud was the eldest of five children, caught up in his family’s claim for asylum. Despite the ongoing disruption from the asylum process, which included extended periods of time locked up in a detention centre, Masoud achieved amazing results in his GCSE (end-of-secondary) exams and continued this success at ‘A’ level. Academic success was unfortunately a cause of considerable unhappiness and frustration: despite his incredible ability Masoud faced a dark future dictated by his lack of entitlement to work and no viable route to university. Instead of giving up, he decided to try to change his situation.

Campaigning
Masoud was the driving force behind a successful campaign to lobby university Vice Chancellors to offer places to asylum-seeking students. I am proud to report that Masoud was the first student I supported in higher education – he graduated with a first class degree, secured refugee status and was recruited to a position in the financial services industry. Masoud’s starting salary far exceeded anything I have ever earned, enabling him to support his family as well as the UK economy as a higher level tax payer. This was the first of many graduation celebrations. Since Article 26 was founded, a further 15 students have acquired degrees in Law, Biomedical Science, Social Work, Politics, International Relations, Media and IT. Some of these graduates have remained in higher education and undertaken postgraduate study, whilst others are working in and outside the UK.

Article 26 has always adopted a student-centred approach to campaigning. The focus is fixed firmly on the prospective students – what do they want to do, what is their ‘ask’ and what is realistic in terms of them accessing and succeeding in university? Building on the reality of the campaigners’ experiences has been the most powerful asset in our fight to change policy and practice. The project has always been brave in terms of its demands – if one university was prepared to waive tuition fees, then why wouldn’t others? If we thought it was reasonable, we realised that others might too, and we have found many universities keen to get involved. Article 26 doesn’t just ‘make the ask’, but also provides solutions to implementation barriers. This has meant working side by side with universities. We have met so many amazing individuals and institutions, equally committed to making access to higher education just and fair.

The Project
Article 26 has a simple goal – for students who have sought asylum in the UK to access and succeed in higher education. We’ve never complicated or deviated from that goal. Article 26 now works with 14 universities, from which 16 students have graduated and a further 31 are enrolled. We anticipate a further 25 students will commence their undergraduate degree programme in September 2014.

The minimum support required from a university is a full tuition fee bursary – if possible additional financial support to cover the cost of travel, books and equipment. A resource has been developed – Education for All: Access to higher education for people who have sought asylum: a guide for universities – to guide universities through the process of supporting this particular group of brave and talented students. The guide covers, for instance, establishing a bursary scheme, the implications of status (i.e. its impact on support arrangements) and continues through to graduation. ‘Education for All’ was developed in collaboration with current students and partner institutions, and has benefited from a wide range of contributors with expertise in welfare rights, immigration and higher education.

Article 26 continually looks to build new partnerships and create new opportunities. If you want to know more or get involved, download a copy of ‘Education for All’ from: www.hkf.org.uk, where you’ll also find lots more information about Article 26.

Rebecca is a Doctoral Researcher, exploring widening access to higher education for refugees and asylum seekers, at the University of Sheffield and Director of Article 26. She can be contacted at or
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Article 26 offer support and guidance to universities to create packages of support for students who have sought asylum and thus to enable access to higher education. As well as a comprehensive resource that universities can use to implement and tailor packages of support to their individual institutions there is ‘The Article 26 Summer Conference’, run annually to bring together our university partners and students, and ‘The Article 26 Network’ which connects universities offering support to students, to share good practice and update them on any relevant legislative and policy changes.

Reference:
Title: Widening access and creating opportunities in higher education for people who have fled persecution and sought asylum in the UK
Author: Murray, R
Publisher: EENET
Date: 2014
Link: http://www.eenet.org.uk/resources/eenet_newsletter/eer3/page20.php
Published in: Enabling Education Review 3