People sit round a table working and discussing

12 August 2021

Image: still from A Road to Travel, film and copyright by Anna Konik and Józefina Gocman.

As the new academic year approaches, prospective students will be researching courses and seeking advice about studying at university or accessing the training they need to pursue a career. For students with temporary immigration statuses, the road ahead is often uncertain and filled with obstacles. 

Birkbeck, Universities of Sanctuary, and STAR invite university staff to an event on Wednesday 15 September on:

  • the benefits of opening access to higher education to people seeking sanctuary 
  • practical ways of mobilising your institution’s senior management to commit resources and take action
 
 

Read on to find out more about the barriers faced by people seeking sanctuary and the impacts of opening up access, from Equal Access activist Maryam Taher.

Equal access to higher education on the basis of merit is a human right. But across the world, country laws and regulations do not realise this. Globally, just 3% of refugees worldwide have access to higher education, compared to 37% of the general population. The current political climate is one of the most hostile and uncertain for migrants in recent history. Now more than ever, the momentum is needed for people to feel they can seek safety and rebuild their lives in the UK.

Living with a temporary immigration status can be very precarious. Aspiring students face numerous barriers including a lack of government funding, insufficient or unrecognised documentation, language requirements, or inadequate advice and support. These are all compounded by the uncertainty of not knowing how long you will be able to remain in the UK and ever-changing asylum policy, impacting wellbeing and making it harder to overcome these obstacles. People seeking sanctuary are often locked out of higher education, prevented from realising their aspirations and potential.

Universities are increasingly aware of the barriers faced by students with temporary immigration statuses and are developing support to help overcome them. Scholarships are now offered by over 70 universities. Through tuition fee and personal support, these offer people seeking sanctuary better access to higher education, though demand still outstrips supply.

For many students, securing a scholarship is the first step to achieving their aspirations. Many like me that have graduated through these scholarships have said that gaining access to higher education gave them a positive outlook on their future and a sense of welcome and purpose at a time when they needed it most. I know just how important getting support from your university is, in feeling equal and appreciated for your achievements while dealing with an often impenetrable and hostile immigration system.

Providing scholarships is a commitment that universities make to enable individual students to access education. It also sends a wider message of welcome and inclusion: that everyone has the right to safely pursue higher education, regardless of their immigration status. Being part of a student community that understood and raised awareness about the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers was a big part of what made my university experience positive.

Scholarships do not just benefit their recipients, they also have a tangible impact on universities. Many recipients act as activists or advocates for equal access, as I did. Many enrich academic discourse and campus life with their diverse backgrounds and experiences. Due to their experiences, they are often the voice of many people in their situation, expanding the diversity of viewpoints in the university community. I first got involved with the Equal Access campaign while studying, but wanted to work more closely with universities. Now, I’m working with universities on building a movement of welcome and inclusivity for people with asylum and refugee backgrounds.

To learn more about why your university should open access to higher education to people seeking sanctuary, come along to our film screening and panel discussion:

A Road to Travel: When universities welcome students seeking sanctuary

  • Wednesday 15 September, 1.00pm-2.00pm
  • For Janahan Sivanathan, a refugee from Sri Lanka who was caught in the asylum process for years, access to university gave him, in his words, ‘a road to travel’. He entered Birkbeck thanks to its award-winning Sanctuary Scholarship programme, gained refugee status, and has just completed his LLB as a home student.
  • He’s been an active student leader, has already secured a full-time job in his field, and is committed to helping others access university. Like so many Sanctuary Scholars, Janahan has had a hugely positive impact on his university, enriching both student life and academic culture.
  • This event will start with a screening of A Road to Travel (12 minutes, dir. Anna Konik), featuring Janahan and six other Sanctuary Scholars speaking about their university experience. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion including two Sanctuary Scholars and two senior leaders from universities who run Sanctuary programmes.
  • Read more and register your free place on Eventbrite.

Maryam Taher is a STAR Trustee, STAR Equal Access Activist, and a Universities of Sanctuary Coordinator, working at City of Sanctuary UK. She first got involved with STAR and the Equal Access campaign while at university, and now supports universities to become Universities of Sanctuary.

Scroll to Top