As an asylum seekers’ support worker, ‘Can I go to university?’ is a common question I am asked by clients at the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group (UKLGIG). The simple answer is yes; however, in the current hostile environment, for those seeking asylum in the UK there are numerous barriers to higher education. For forced migrants outside of average university age, the prospect of returning to higher education is even more daunting. At the age where many of them should have been looking forward to attending university, they had to abandon educational aspirations due to conflict, or in the case of our clients, simply for being part of the LGBTQI+ community.
This article focuses on two schemes, whose aims are to increase access to further education for forced migrants, the University of East London Open Learning Initiative (OLIve) and the Compass Project at Birkbeck, University of London. Both schemes aim to tackle the barriers for forced migrants accessing further education and to increase their participation in higher education. A key area both projects aim to address is the lack of information available to forced migrants on access to higher education in the UK, especially among people who have never experienced it, or have extensive breaks from education.
Many forced migrants rely on third-sector organisations for information. Within the UK asylum system, there are high levels of destitution, insecure housing, and mental and physical health crises, which have increased due to the current COVID-19 pandemic. Many charities and NGOs are overstretched, focused on fighting crises such as street homelessness, which leave little capacity for non-urgent issues.
Leah*, who has been in the UK asylum system since 2015, remembers her early educational experience: ‘Because of my immigration status and the mere fact that I needed to pay for my tuition fees, as I was recognised as an international student, I couldn’t find my fees and I didn’t know how to go about doing that. I ended up not migrating to GCSE. And unfortunately, you know, my refusal came while I was preparing myself to go for level two. So when I went back to the college, they said, no, we need new documents from the Home Office… Well, I didn’t even go back there because I felt that with that type of status, I might not be eligible because you have to have a pending case.’
Having no one to ask about what she could do, Leah stopped attending college and gave up on her educational ambitions. Those seeking asylum cannot apply for student finance and must rely on finding funds elsewhere. Asylum seekers are also prohibited from working while their asylum applications are pending, and asylum support rates are £39.60 per week. This makes paying for higher education fees impossible. However, whilst an increasing number of universities are providing scholarships to forced migrants, there is a lack of accessible information and knowledge about how forced migrants can apply.
Aura Lounasmaa, OLIve’s course director, said the idea of OLIve came from a realisation that ‘there was a gap between universities providing scholarships and how refugees, asylum seekers, and displaced students were able to apply for those scholarships’. Lounasmaa explains the difficulties lie in the requirements needed for scholarship and university applications and the kind of information, skills and knowledge displaced students have. Potential students ‘don’t know how universities operate and they don’t know where to find the information’.
OLIve has been specifically designed to increase participation of refugees and asylum seekers in higher education, especially those who have had to step away from formal education for a long period of time because they were forced to flee their country of origin. Not only does OLIve give attendees the opportunity to have English language tuition, classes in academic skills, academic lectures, and IT classes but tutors also assist students to plan a specific pathway to attain their educational goals.
OLIve also provides a place for course participants to make friends and create networks outside of the asylum system. Leah, a previous OLIve student, said she feels that as an asylum seeker, ‘our minds are centred around immigration, it is our focal point, yes we know we want to be educated but it is all about immigration, immigration, immigration’. The OLIve course allows asylum seekers to be students away from that situation, providing a positive experience outside of their immigration claim.
The Compass Project at Birkbeck also focuses on improving access to higher education for forced migrants. It not only provides information and additional support for students with forced migration backgrounds, but also provides twenty students, who are not eligible for student finance because of their immigration status, with Sanctuary Scholarships to study for a university qualification.
Birkbeck, as an evening university, has a high proportion of mature students and has flexible entry criteria. Those with forced migrant backgrounds often experience problems with previous qualifications not recognised in the UK or are unable to provide proof of past grades. Isabelle Habib, Senior Access Officer at the Compass Project said, ‘instead of just looking at someone’s grades we also take into consideration people’s life experiences, volunteering and different things in order to come to a decision about if someone would be suitable for the course or not’.
The Compass Project recognises the need to provide extra support to their students who have a forced migrant background. They acknowledge that navigating the asylum process in the UK is complex and a stressful time for those students. Habib explains, ‘when they come to Birkbeck they are very much part of this Compass community. We have an academic mentoring programme where we pair students with an academic who offers mentoring to the student to help them with their academic studies and help them navigate the university but will also signpost to wellbeing services’. The aim of the Compass Project is to give students the platform to achieve their educational ambitions despite the challenges a forced migration background brings.
Both schemes do much to improve access to higher education for forced migrants, but there are still too few in the UK. UK higher education institutions need to do more to ensure there are accessible opportunities for those with forced migration especially for those who have been forced to step away from education for many years.
*Leah is a pseudonym chosen by the interviewee to protect their identity.
Claire Fletcher is a PhD candidate at University College London. Her research focuses on how queer asylum seekers experience religion during their asylum journey and whilst seeking asylum in the UK. Claire also works at the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group, a charity that promotes equality and dignity for LGBTI people seeking asylum in the UK, as an LGBTQI+ Asylum Support Worker. Follow her on Twitter at @Ms_Fletch.