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Ufuk Gokkaya

Sanctuary scholarships in a cold climate


‘It’s been a long, long journey,’ reflects Aisha Seriki during her first week at SOAS University in London. She was among the first cohort to take up a Sanctuary Scholarship, a radical scheme to support those who would otherwise be excluded from higher education by tough immigration rules.

Originally from Nigeria, Seriki has lived in Britain since the age of eight. She attended primary and secondary school here, got high grades at A-level and secured a place at SOAS. And, since 2016, she has papers that grant temporary residency (‘Limited Leave to Remain’) in Britain.

But talent – and even legal status of a certain stripe – will only get you so far in the UK’s explicitly hostile environment.

When the UCAS university application process rolled around, Seriki knew she would be considered an overseas student under complex, ever-stricter Home Office eligibility rules.

As an ‘international’ student, she is in line for inflated tuition fees of up to £26,000 per year and barred from borrowing money, like UK citizens do, to pay for either the fees or living costs. For families scraping to save up for the next visa renewal, this puts higher education firmly out of reach.

‘I didn’t tell my friends,’ she recalls. ‘I was just blasé, saying that I wasn’t going to uni. They wouldn’t have understood.’

As her peers made plans, she started to feel hopeless. ‘Once again I was at the mercy of these laws. I couldn’t accept it. I had nothing else. I knew I had to fight.’

Young, gifted and blocked

Seriki found out about SOAS’s enlightened Sanctuary Scholarship – which offers a full waiver of tuition fees and help with living expenses to displaced people – through Let Us Learn (LUL). A group of young people in London with up-in-the-air immigration status, they are campaigning for rights in a similar way to Undocumented Dreamers in the US, on behalf of some 800 youngsters in limbo. ‘It’s a hidden problem,’ says Seriki. ‘Some people find out when they apply and by then it’s just too late.’

With 50 graduates to date, and many others in the pipeline, Britain’s bursary programme can only help a fraction of aspiring migrants who are shut out of higher education. But it is growing steadily in size and ambition. Over 35 universities now offer similar scholarships to both refugees and people with ‘unresolved’ immigration status like Seriki, including asylum seekers, those with humanitarian protection status and others who are treated as overseas students under UK law.

If this is what people can achieve in a hostile environment, imagine what could happen if we were to encourage and support people’ – Rebecca Murray, Article 26

‘In order to access university on the same terms as UK citizens, you need indefinite Leave to Remain and hardly anyone seems to get that any more,’ explains Rebecca Murray, director of Article 26, the driving force behind the sanctuary scholarships programme.

Article 26 began in 2010, with Winchester, Canterbury Christchurch and Liverpool Hope universities stepping up to offer full-tuition fee waivers to asylum seekers. Since 2015, it’s become commonplace to also create bursaries to help migrant students with other living costs.

In the case of Bristol, a scholarship also includes vital non-financial support: staff with immigration law expertise, connecting migrant scholars with other support services and making sure their previous education is understood.

Murray, who has worked for the past 13 years on the issue of access to Higher Education, pushes hardest for those in the most precarious positions, many of whom are still actively seeking asylum. ‘We aim to be inclusive, not exclusive,’ she says.

Her statement sounds natural and logical enough. But in the context of Britain’s stratified and dehumanizing Home Office regime, it’s nothing short of revolutionary – an existential challenge to harsh and bewildering immigration rules, which divide and sub-divide entitlements according to a dizzying array of conditional permissions to live in the UK, and sound the death knell for so many young people’s futures and aspirations.

Article 26’s refusal to discriminate results in lives transformed. Murray reels off remarkable stories one by one. She describes a Pakistani goat herder who arrived in the UK alone aged 15.* He had no formal education and had tragically lost his brother en route. Six years later, he is studying software engineering at De Montfort in Leicester.

Another boy, this time from Somalia, also came to the UK as a child. Self-taught and crazily bright, he spent a year imprisoned in an immigration detention centre studying in its library. Thanks to Article 26 he was able to fund an MSc in Physics, from which he emerged with a First, despite being destitute throughout, going on to become the first asylum-seeking PhD student at the University of Manchester.

A high-achiever from Bangladesh* slept on the floor of a business in return for doing their accounts while studying at London Metropolitan University; he also just graduated with First Class Honours and is tipped for a career in finance.

‘There are so many fantastic, inspiring stories at a time of so much negativity,‘ says Murray. ‘If this is what people can achieve in a hostile environment, imagine what could happen if we were to encourage and support people.’

Refugees welcome. Sanctuary scholarships

Rhetoric does not educate

Article 26 is drawing up a set of guiding principles to encourage existing universities to expand eligibility criteria, increase the number of scholarships and entice new institutions to come on board.

Murray explains that offering scholarships takes a certain amount of courage. For while it is at the discretion of the university who they educate, their administrators must be prepared to marshal intimidating ‘compliance’ paperwork and to stand up to the Home Office, who have successfully intervened to have students’ support withdrawn in the past.

Pressure from within institutions is also key. Murray does not like to put one university above another in terms of what they offer, but lists SOAS’ scheme as an excellent model. This is due in no small part to a powerful student-run campaign.

‘Around the time of Alan Kurdi, SOAS wanted to put up a Refugees Welcome banner,’ says Holly Buck from the Solidarity with Displaced People and Refugees student society. ‘I said, you can’t put that up because it’s not true.’

Offering scholarships takes courage. University administrators must be prepared to marshal intimidating ‘compliance’ paperwork and to stand up to the Home Office

She co-founded Education Beyond Borders, which lobbied SOAS to turn rhetoric into real educational opportunities for forced migrants. The university eventually established a 5-year programme, offering 30 fee waivers to undergraduate and masters students over a five-year period, which Seriki is now benefiting from. But the campaign didn’t stop there.

‘Fee waivers are not enough,’ explains Buck. ‘You have a duty of care towards people – a student will walk six miles or go without eating in order to study. It’s such a big opportunity.’

The group went on to secure living costs and other support for migrant scholars, working with Alumni and Development at SOAS to raise over £425,000. They have Transport for London in their sights for Oyster Cards to subsidize travel and the student union as a source of refurbished bikes.

It takes energy, commitment and not a small amount of fire in the belly to carve out a space for people who the Home Office is working so actively to exclude.

Each determined, talented migrant scholar who has managed to study in the face of discrimination is backed by a bevy of quiet – and not so quiet – champions, administrators, fellow students and campaigners who battle for funding and support.

Seriki feels this keenly. ‘With my scholarship I’m feeling that I’m one of the lucky few. I want to use that to help other people in my situation. I want to use that chance to study law,’ she says.

‘I was in the box of Least Secure,’ the Somali PhD physicist – now installed at Manchester’s prestigious Photon Science Institute – told Article 26. ‘I am still an asylum seeker, I am still reporting [to the Home Office]. I am still unable to open a bank account or work. But look what can happen if universities take a chance on people, like they did on me.’

* Some students’ personal details have been changed to protect their identities.


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