How to widen HE access for forced migrants

Blog for members
18 October 2019
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Katya Ivanova is a Graduate Admissions Selector at the London School of Economics. She received her PhD in European Studies from the LSE European Institute in 2016. Katya’s experience and interests focus on widening access to under-represented groups in HE. Her blog explores the importance of widening HE access for forced migrants and gives recommendations to the sector. 

Less than 1% of the 65 million displaced people worldwide are in higher education, and their displacement disrupts their education, leaving them with few prospects. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that, according to figures from 2014, although around 7.2 million forced migrants* complete secondary education, only around 195,000 enrol in university. 

Higher Education (HE) is vital. Not only in terms of individual wellbeing and opportunities for forced migrants, but also because it contributes to post-conflict reconstruction, empowers their communities and advances social, economic and gender equality. Improving access to HE for forced migrants is also beneficial for universities. These students and their experiences increase understanding of migration issues and the refugee crisis among university staff and students. Increased access to HE for forced migrants also fits with the values and strategic plans of most universities, with their emphasis on greater diversity and inclusivity. Welcoming forced migrants is also a way to counter discourses of xenophobia and racism within and beyond campus life.

Barriers to HE  

The lack of available information about how to access HE is a common barrier forced migrants encounter. Those living in places where the host country faces economic and social challenges and does not have well-functioning mechanisms of support lack easily-accessible information points. 
If they live in a refugee camp, access to information may be very limited depending on internet connectivity and the NGOs that operate the camp and the type of information they can offer.  Even in the UK, not knowing how to navigate the university admissions system and where to look for information is a frequent challenge. 

This is exacerbated by the lack of co-ordination between academic providers, which means potential students must access information about multiple programmes in many different places. Moreover, these applicants may be constrained further by the availability of funding, which makes it difficult to find out which universities can offer both their preferred programme and the (level of) funding they require. 

The cost of pursuing higher education can also be prohibitive. Using the Home Office guidance, universities tend to classify many groups of forced migrants as international students for fee purposes. Asylum seekers and persons with limited/discretionary leave to remain face the starkest financial constraints as--unlike those already granted refugee or humanitarian protection status--they do not qualify for student support and tend to have no or very limited recourse to public funds. 

For those applying both within and outside the UK, submitting an application is a significant financial challenge due to application fees and other related expenses like English language exam fees and costs associated with obtaining official academic transcripts. In the UK, the price of ‘staying lawful’, namely high asylum application and renewal fees which cost over £1,000, is a key deterrent to applying and staying in university.

Retrieving original documentation required by universities (academic transcripts, diplomas, etc.) can be a dangerous, time-consuming and expensive process. Forced migrants may struggle to evidence their prior educational qualifications due to loss of exam certificates, transcripts, and lack of recognition of certificates gained in other countries. Applicants have been known to undertake life-threatening journeys back to their home country to locate the necessary evidence. This has become a critical protection issue and has given impetus for universities to consider alternative sources and methods to verify prior learning. 

The need for a high level of written and spoken academic English is another challenge. For many of these aspiring university students improving their language through further tuition can be expensive and inaccessible depending on the location of their displacement. Many forced migrants from conflict zones have had their education interrupted for significant periods of time. Without access to appropriate preparatory courses or foundation programmes, many who are technically ‘university ready’ are unable to re-start their education.

Other barriers include fitting into the application cycle, emotional and mental needs, destitution and disruptions related to the active ‘management’ of immigration cases. Asylum seekers frequently have difficulty fitting in the timeframe of the UK admissions cycle and changes to their immigration status can impact negatively the university application process. Reporting to the Home Office--something that they are often required to do--is taxing and disruptive. Depending on the location, reporting can cause a considerable drain on already limited resources and can cause stress and fear of being detained. These barriers can cause delays in applying to university.

Recommendations to university admissions staff to widen HE access

  • Waive application fees. Grant full offers even after any offer target has been met.
  • Request further information if an applicant falls short of the minimum academic requirement to ensure that applications are assessed in a contextual manner.
  • Accept ‘soft’ copies of academic transcripts and certificates. Where these are not available or partially available, consider alternatives to reconstruct an applicant’s academic background. These may include one or more of the following: sworn statements, witness statements, internal assessment of academic competencies and reputable further education/foundation courses and programmes.
  • Where possible, reimburse the costs of notarised statements, additional assessments and fees for English language tests.
  • Establish ‘sanctuary’ scholarships.
  • Signpost applicants to available scholarships for forced migrants in the UK.
  • Signpost applicants to preparatory English courses for refugees and to organisations that provide financial support with the test fees. Consider slightly expired English test results and other alternative evidence on a case-by-case basis.
  • Consider alternatives to academic and/or professional references. Communicate to applicants that alternative references from persons who know the applicant well will be accepted. These may include charity contacts, community leaders, immigration lawyers, social workers and NGO workers.
  • Signpost rejected applicants to alternative resources to continue their educational journey.
  • Consider becoming a University of Sanctuary

* I use forced migrants as an umbrella term that covers several sub-categories: refugees, asylum seekers, persons granted humanitarian protection and limited/discretionary leave to remain and stateless persons.