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Universities and people seeking sanctuary in the UK

15 Jun 2021 | Dr Mike Chick As part of Refugee Week 2021, Dr Mike Chick a lecturer in teacher education, shares his thoughts on how universities can do more to help people seeking sanctuary in the UK – and why this is more urgent now than ever before.

Universities are uniquely placed in society to bring together people from diverse backgrounds. In doing so, pre-existing preconceptions often melt away and in place of stereotypes and prejudice, friendship and understanding are given the opportunity to develop. Facilitating access to university allows people to develop the skills and abilities to realise their potential, achieve their ambition and contribute meaningfully to society. The problem, however, is that people seeking safety in the UK are prevented from working or accessing university while the Home Office assesses their claim for sanctuary. This means that opportunities for enabling those seeking asylum to utilise the knowledge and energy they bring are lost, and the prospects of creating ever-more diverse and inclusive campuses are missed. 

Sadly, it also signifies that thousands of individuals are left in limbo each year, unable to develop their talents fully or begin integrating in their local community. In recognising this injustice and lost opportunity to promote integration and the wellbeing of those seeking safety in the UK, many universities have launched sanctuary schemes. These initiatives have the backing of major humanitarian organisations such as the UNHCR, which recently urged universities to “…offer scholarships and other ways for refugee students to access tertiary education.” The schemes that are in place in UK universities have already helped hundreds of individual students, yet demand for the scholarships far outstrips supply.

The numbers

In each year since 2015, approximately 30,000 people who have been forced to flee their countries begin a claim for asylum in the UK. This figure is significantly smaller than the number of people provided with sanctuary in other EU countries. For instance, in 2019 Germany, Spain and France all had over 100,000 applications for asylum. Indeed, the UK trails 16 other EU countries in terms of the number of asylum applications. Moreover, it is usually the countries that neighbour the states from which people are fleeing that provide sanctuary to the largest number of people forced to seek safety. Turkey, for example, has accepted over 3 million refugees who have fled from Syria as a result of the decade-long civil war. In numerical terms, the UK lags far behind with regard to providing a safe haven for those escaping harm or persecution.

However, not only does the UK provide sanctuary to far fewer refugees than its closest neighbours, but the situation is set to deteriorate when the Home Office rolls out its New Plan for Immigration. The plan includes rules that stipulate the forced return of anyone seeking asylum, had they previously passed through a country deemed safe. One of the issues with this, aside from its shirking of global responsibility, is that the UK has not yet managed to reach an agreement with any country to enforce this plan. International organisations have raised serious concerns about the proposal, suggesting that it will weaken the UK’s commitment to international legislation and possibly contravene the Geneva convention. The UNHCR stated that it “would damage lives, be hard to implement and undermine international cooperation on refugee issues” while the Chief Executive of the British Red cross described the policy as “inhumane”.

For people interested in social justice issues, these developments are bleak and depressing. However, those of us who work in higher education are in a position to take meaningful action. Dozens of universities have introduced scholarships and language bursaries to support those people forced to seek safety in the UK and who wish to get into university.  We already know how empowering education can be. For people escaping persecution or danger, facing an uncertain future in a new country, the importance is magnified, as these reflections show:

It’s so very important for your state of mind. When you go to the University you see people, you talk to your tutors, speak in the class, chatting to your classmates, you know. It gives you that sense of belonging, it makes you forget some things.”

Sanctuary Scheme scholar

Getting the scholarship has made me feel that I will achieve my goal! After I finish the course Pre-essential, I will study Computer Sciences including the foundation year. This [the scholarship] gives me the chance to develop my knowledge and my skills, and to be able to survive in the society that I am living in.”

Sanctuary Scheme scholar

Is your Uni doing all it can?

So, is your university doing all it can to support people seeking safety in the UK from danger or persecution? Do you have a scholarship scheme that also supports the language development of sanctuary scholars? Do issues surrounding refugees and asylum seeker students get reported / recognised in Strategic Action Plans? If the answer to any of these questions is no, then it is worth considering the profound impact such schemes can have on individuals’ lives and communities. If you’d like to know more about how to get a sanctuary scheme started, read this advice, get in touch or download Language Provision and Sanctuary Scholarship Schemes: a case study from a Welsh university


Mike Chick has worked in language teaching for over 25 years. At the University of South Wales, he is a lecturer in ESOL teacher education and is the University Refugee Champion. His research interests surround the organisation and provision of language education for people forced to seek safety in Wales.

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