A person sits on a bed working at a laptop surrounded by various books and notebooks

10 August 2021

Today, thousands of A-level and SQA students across the country will find out whether they have the results they need to go to university. For people who are seeking asylum, it’s not that simple – there are significant barriers that effectively prevent them from accessing higher education. People like Paskar, a former Olympian athlete, and Steve, an aspiring nurse.

Waiting years

Access to higher education is a human right, and it’s life-changing. Going to university can improve job prospects, support mental health, and help integrate people into the community.

In the UK, people seeking asylum are treated as international students and have to pay extremely high international fees. They’re not allowed to work and can’t use student finance. They’re forced to rely on Sanctuary Scholarships – competitive scholarships for students from forced migrant backgrounds, offered at around half the UK’s universities.

Paskar, a former Ugandan international athlete of the Track and Field event of 800m, has an offer to study sports coaching at university. He is waiting to hear whether he’ll be granted a Sanctuary Scholarship to fund his studies. 

‘My experience during the time I was applying to the university was so challenging because I had to go through UCAS and it’s not easy if one is an asylum seeker unless he or she knows what to do. The barriers are so many…As asylum seekers, the law is very clear: to work is not allowed and we have no recourse to public funds* either.’


Like many other people seeking asylum, numerous financial, legal, and practical obstacles are preventing him from achieving his dreams. People waiting for a decision on their asylum claim often wait for years to attend university while their claim is processed or they try to secure a scholarship. Even once granted permission to stay in the UK, restrictive rules about accessing student finance or difficulties in getting entry qualifications recognised often create additional delays. Even if you’re granted limited leave to remain**, you may only get access to student finance years after you’ve been granted status. In England, rules are particularly restrictive based on how long you have lived in the UK. All of this means that for people seeking asylum or with a temporary immigration status, accessing higher education is often not a reality. 

Stuck in the system

When people ‘seek asylum’, they are hoping to be granted refugee status or Humanitarian Protection to remain indefinitely in the UK. Even when this is granted, there is limited access to the right kind of support, as well as restrictive and confusing rules about overseas qualifications. When people are granted refugee status to remain in the UK, they are usually eligible to apply for student finance. However, navigating the UK’s higher education system can be challenging for people unfamiliar with the UK or without strong support networks. Many people seeking asylum don’t receive the support they need at school or college, or they may have difficulties getting existing qualifications recognised in the UK. 

Steve has been trying to attend university since 2014. He’s still waiting to continue his studies. For the last two years, he’s received unconditional offers from his chosen university, but hasn’t been able to accept. He hasn’t received an offer of a scholarship, so wouldn’t have been able to cover his living costs while studying. 

‘Lack of funding has been devastating to me and my career. I want to study Adult Nursing. Nurses play such a vital role in society, and I would like to contribute to the excellent work they do. My main career goal is to work for the NHS as a Registered Nurse, providing care and support to patients and making a positive impact on the lives of others.’


Over 70 universities offer Sanctuary Scholarships, which creates about 200 opportunities each year for people who would otherwise be unable to continue their education. However, these opportunities still fail to meet demand.  Even where available, they may be limited and insufficient to support a student throughout their studies.

Looking to the future

This year, Steve’s still waiting to hear back from his first choice of university to see if he has an offer. While he’s just heard that his asylum claim has been successful, he’s likely to experience further delays as he waits for documentation that would allow him to apply for student finance. Paskar is still waiting for his asylum application to be processed, and hasn’t heard back from his chosen university about whether he will receive a scholarship to study. Paskar is still hopeful, saying, ‘for me, going to university to study now as an asylum seeker would be the greatest thing and would prepare me for the future.’

Going to university should be equally accessible on the basis of merit for everyone. But in the UK, people seeking refugee protection are locked out of this life-changing opportunity.  As part of STAR’s Equal Access campaign, we call on universities to:

  • Classify all those seeking asylum as home students for fee purposes 
  • Offer scholarships to cover study and maintenance costs
  • Publicise their Equal Access policies so that potential students can easily apply

Being part of STAR’s Equal Access campaign and network gives people seeking asylum the opportunity to fight for their right to education and learn from each other. Find out more about STAR’s Equal Access campaign and how to get involved.

Immigration jargon explained

  • No Recourse to Public Funds* is a legal condition applying to many migrants in the UK as part of their immigration status. It prevents them from accessing many important benefits like unemployment benefits or housing benefits. Living without these safety nets increases the risk of poverty.
  • Limited leave to remain** is a legal status meaning that someone has been approved to enter the UK and to remain here until their visa expires. This may be granted as the result of an asylum claim. Limited leave to remain is usually granted on the condition that you have no recourse to public funds. When your visa expires, you have to apply for leave to remain again.

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