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Author: Neil Graffin

Becoming a University of Sanctuary

Updated Wednesday, 26 June 2024

This year, The Open University has been recognised as a University of Sanctuary. Neil Graffin, Senior Lecturer in Law, Head of Department and Chair of the Sanctuary Advisory Network at The OU, explains what this means.

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To be acknowledged as a University of Sanctuary, higher education institutions have to demonstrate that they are meeting a series of outcomes relevant to supporting those from a forced migration background. This includes a clear commitment, for example, to supporting those from a forced migrant background in accessing education, creating a spirit of inclusivity within the organisation, teaching themes of migration and sanctuary, and working in improving a culture of sanctuary in higher education generally.

Why people have to leave their homes

Forced migrants are those who are coerced into moving because of threats to their life, human rights, or livelihood. They may include people who are fleeing conflict, those who are at risk of persecution in their home countries, or people displaced through natural or environmental disasters. It may include those forced to move because of climate change, with the UNHCR reporting that extreme weather events are already inducing 23 million people to leave their homes each year.

You belong somewhere, you belong to a certain cohort. You can identify as… not as a refugee, but as a student.

Many forced migrants face substantial barriers to obtaining education in the UK. For example, while asylum claimants are allowed to study (unless they have ‘no study’ immigration bail conditions), they are often charged at an international/overseas rate, and they are not eligible for student finance. Other students may face hurdles to obtain ‘home fees’ and apply for student finance if they have limited right to remain (meaning they are not allowed to stay in the UK indefinitely). Some of these students may be eligible for student finance under the long residency category, but others may not qualify. For most asylum claimants and those with limited leave statuses, the cost of international fees is prohibitively expensive for them to be able to study. In addition to this, forced migrants may have a language barrier or other challenges which make it difficult for them to study.

In addition to being able to enhance knowledge and skills, increase capacity in critical thinking, develop employability skills, and obtain a higher income in the future, previous research has shown that access and participation in higher education has other added benefits for those seeking sanctuary. For example, research has indicated that participation in higher education can give sanctuary students a sense of purpose and an opportunity to participate in cultural life.

Research we completed at the OU chimed with this, and while it was recognised that distance-learning can sometimes be an isolating experience, students recognised that education has several additional beneficial factors, providing them with the chance to gain a sense of belonging to a community – an educative community – as well as UK society in general. As noted by one student: ‘You belong somewhere, you belong to a certain cohort. You can identify as… not as a refugee, but as a student.’

Opening doors to studying

At The Open University, to enable some forced migrants to overcome barriers to education we have 12 Open Futures Sanctuary Scholarships. This allows free study of 360 credits of OU undergraduate credit-bearing study (the equivalent to an undergraduate qualification). We also have 10 free places on OU Access modules. These scholarships provide opportunities for forced migrants to study when they would otherwise not have the chance.

In becoming a University of Sanctuary, The Open University is striving to provide life-changing opportunities for a group of students who face substantial barriers to education. As recognised in our university’s mission, we play a unique role in society, and we seek to make higher education open to all. Our commitment to sanctuary students fits within our common objective as a university, aiming to break down the barriers which prevent any person’s access to education. It is embodied in our open-entry policy and in our commitment to free learning which is provided through OpenLearn, the platform you are reading this article on, and through which we have collated free sources for forced migrants in our Sanctuary Hub.

Becoming a University of Sanctuary is much more than this – it is about developing a true culture of welcome for those from forced migrant backgrounds, to learn from others who do the same, and to share and embed practices of inclusivity across the sector. To be a University of Sanctuary is a natural extension of our university’s mission – to be truly open to people.

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