24 June 2022

Current situations brewed by conflict and persecution mean that consolidating a global response to the needs of displaced students, scholars, and staff in higher education is especially urgent. We were so excited to attend the UNESCO World Higher Education Conference in Barcelona last month and be part of shaping ideas and practices in higher education.
The power to create change doesn’t lie only with senior decision-makers. Here we’ve shared STAR Equal Access Activist Daniel Mutanda’s presentation from the conference in which he sets out the history of STAR and the importance of student-led action. 

World Higher Education Conference Poster

Picture this, it’s 1994, you’re a university student and reading a UNHCR magazine. What do you feel? Some of you may recollect that panic around an upcoming essay deadline, that enthusiasm to listen to your favourite lecturer, and the relief when you find out you passed your exam. All normal experiences for ordinary students – ordinary students like Andy Davies, who while reading a copy of a UNHCR magazine, stumbled upon a problem.

“I was simply staggered by the extraordinary catalogue of human displacement. I was equally staggered, I suppose, to recall that during my three years at university, I hadn’t at any stage come across a student group specific to this issue…”

Andy was inspired to set up a student group that would grow from one university to 3 in less than 3 years. The movement would continue to spread until there were star groups in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

From 2020-21 there were:

  • Over 2000 members in 45 groups across the UK
  • Over 400 events across the network
  • 2 new national online volunteering projects
  • 16 STAR groups campaigning for Equal Access

Now you may be wondering, how did that all start with one student?

The answer is detailed in our name and evidenced by an individual’s story… action.

Andy wrote a letter to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva suggesting they set up a network of university groups with the aim of getting students involved in supporting refugees.

To his surprise, they wrote back saying it is a fantastic idea and asked Andy to set up a pilot scheme to see if it would work. He then contacted the British Refugee Council, who gave him posters, t-shirts, and stationary – pillars of student life – Andy applied for a stall for the societies fair at his university. He sat at the fair with a blank membership form, wondering if anyone would take an interest in… people did. Nottingham University set up the first STAR group. Among those who signed up in its first year was Elly Hargreave, she helped grow the movement as a co-founder – establishing groups in London and Edinburgh in 1996. By then, Andy had stepped aside to pursue a career in journalism and allowed others to lead the movement. Elly went on to register STAR as a charity in 1999 and the network has continued growing since.

Our membership has doubled since the increase in refugees coming to Europe in 2015. The magnitude of the global refugee crisis left many people unsure of what they could do to help, but with STAR, students saw that they could make a difference.

At the same time as the early days of STAR, the UK was shifting its approach to immigration and introducing increasingly amoral asylum policies. These policies included removing the right to work or to choose where to live, increasing the use of detention, and implementing successive cuts to asylum support.

The UK’s hostile environment manifested itself as barriers to higher education, denied access to student finance, failure to recognise existing qualifications and the breakdown of social capital. Many did not know about structural barriers such as these, people received inaccurate advice from schools/colleges, or had inadequate support from universities which left almost no options for those seeking to access higher education. This led to people being unable to pursue their academic ambitions and simply left behind

As the network grew, the team at STAR realised it had the potential not only to raise awareness about refugee issues and provide practical help but to change the system too.

Over the years STAR has been instrumental in many successful campaigns. These have ended the practice of holding children in immigration detention centres, lobbied the government to change the status of the 20,000 Syrian refugees being resettled in the UK, allowing them immediate access to universities, and created scholarships for asylum seekers and refugees with our Equal Access campaign at over 70 universities.

The Equal Access Campaign asks 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

Now picturing again that you are a student or even a university employee… you want to make a difference to support refugees but aren’t sure how. We suggest you ask yourself:

  • Does my university offer scholarships for people seeking asylum, refugee status, Humanitarian Protection, or Limited/Discretionary Leave to Remain?
  • If my university does offer scholarships, how many do they offer? Could the number on offer be increased, or could uptake be improved?
  • Does my university classify students seeking asylum as home students for fee purposes?

Many more questions and answers can be found by looking at the experiences of people like me. My name is Daniel Mutanda and my journey towards taking action started four years ago while I was in my second year of university.

I had gained access to study psychology at the University of Winchester through a sanctuary award scholarship because my immigration status stopped me from receiving student finance. In 2018, I was supported to attend the Article 26 conference. It was an opportunity to connect with sanctuary scholars (students who accessed university while seeking sanctuary) and learn more about accessing higher education. It was announced that the Article 26 project and City of Sanctuary’s University stream would merge.

Having spent time at the conference listening to the experiences of other sanctuary scholars, a variety of different routes and circumstances, but arriving at the same barriers to HE, I realised how widespread these problems were. However, I also learned more about the people/organisations working to change the system, and I wanted to help make a change.

Within 3 months, I became employed as a student ambassador by the University of Winchester’s widening participation department, joined the Universities of Sanctuary national steering group, and while completing my bachelor’s, started the process of setting up a STAR group on my campus. Just over in year after deciding to take action, I moved away from home to start my master’s in public health at the University of Warwick. By then I had delivered various workshops and contributed to national resources on HE. I was connected with the university’s sanctuary steering group and was invited to help them develop their initiatives for people seeking sanctuary.

At the same time, I started to work with STAR more nationally, speaking at events and conferences, but I was also volunteering locally at Warwick STAR, teaching English to refugees in our community at our conversation clubs

This is how I started, one step at a time, building my confidence and capacity with each opportunity leading to me speaking to you today, as an Equal Access Activist.

I’m here representing my peers in our Equal Access Network. As Equal Access Activists, we use our learned experience of accessing higher education while seeking sanctuary to guide STAR’s Equal Access campaign. We are examples of how individuals can thrive if they are given the chance to study and now work to ensure that the opportunities we had are progressively accessible to others.

We meet with university staff, and parliamentarians, and work with students and the media to develop outputs such as articles, interviews and webinars which demonstrate the difficulties of accessing higher education. We are able to do this because we have felt the anxiety of having to fill a scholarship application knowing it’s the only way to study at university, the depression from social exclusion because you can’t afford student society/sports fees and the embarrassment when you have to explain to university staff why you don’t have certain documents. We use our experiences to take informed action to reshape practices across the HE sector and serve as role models for those who are trying to access higher education while seeking sanctuary.

What are the key takeaways from all of this?

National/International movements can start from one ordinary student taking action, but they cannot go far alone. Students are full of zeal to act where they see injustice, but if we look at Andy Davies’s story we learn 3 things:

  1. We all must learn more about what it means to be seeking sanctuary;
  2. Organisations/institutions must take positive action to invest in initiatives that foster welcome, safety and inclusion;
  3. We all must take steps to ensure this progress outlasts the current student population.

While aspiring to grow a national network, ensure you do not lose the voices of people with the experience of what you are campaigning for. For every Andy Davies or Elly Hargreave, there must be someone like me, like Tamana or Waleed, people with experience of seeking sanctuary, who join in the movement. Create space for the people who are experts by virtue of having that experience and we will take action together to achieve equal access to higher education.

Daniel was a Sanctuary Award recipient at the University of Winchester where he studied psychology and helped set up Winchester STAR. He became member of Warwick STAR while completing a Master’s in Public Health. He has continued working with STAR nationally and internationally as an Equal Access Activist. Currently, he is employed as a research assistant in an NHS mental health trust.

How you can get involved:

If you’re interested in campaigning for Equal Access, read more on our Take Action page and get in touch with STAR’s Access to University Coordinator in the national team, Siobhán.

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