Students call for better access to higher education for refugees and asylum seekers

University students and young adults have called for greater access to higher education for refugees and asylum seekers, during an event organised by the Student Christian Movement (SCM). Students came from universities in Birmingham, Worcester and Leeds to hear stories from local asylum seekers, who spoke of the difficult and often drawn out process of settling in Britain, and take part in workshops exploring the current refugees situation.

“Refugees and asylum seekers have come from dangerous places, often fleeing war and poverty, with many young people among them hoping to go to university,” said Ruth Wilde, SCM’s Faith in Action worker who organised the event.

“SCM’s campaign in partnership with Student Action for Refugees is asking our universities and leaders to extend compassion to these people by making it easier for them to access loans or grants and attend a university course that could change their lives,” she added.

The Equal Access campaign

SCM is part of a coalition of different organisations involved in the ‘Equal Access’ campaign, led by Student Action for Refugees (STAR), At present, refugees and asylum seekers looking to enrol on a university course cannot access loans or grants to cover some of these costs. They are required to pay the same tuition fees as international students, which make it nearly impossible for any refugee to attend a university and develop their education.

At the event on Saturday 13 February, students heard from Shari Brown, who is a project coordinator at Restore, a Birmingham-based charity. Shari spoke of the need for Christian communities to challenge the misinformation surrounding refugees and present positive stories to society through the media. “We need to find allies in the media to push these positive stories and change the messaging around refugees,” she said.

Students also heard from two local asylum seekers, who live in Birmingham and are involved in the local community through St Chad’s Sanctuary and a community hospitality house. “We don’t leave our homes to claim benefits,” one refugee said. “We leave because it’s dangerous. We just want to rebuild our lives.” Fr Martin Newell, who helps to coordinate the Catholic Worker community house project in Birmingham, added that Christians and churches are slowly reviving the “lost Christian virtue of hospitality”, and students can help build a more welcoming place for refugees in their communities.

The importance of Higher Education

In February the University of Edinburgh announced plans to offer fully funded scholarships to five asylum-seeking students beginning in 2016, with a ‘significant reduction in costs’ in tuition fees for other students seeking asylum. Students at the campaign event in Birmingham said this was an encouraging step and offered other ways of taking action to welcome refugees and asylum seekers into the country.

“Education is probably the most important factor in informing people about the world,” said Mark Birkett, a student at the University of Birmingham and member of MethSoc, the SCM-affiliated Methodist group there. “Education is the pathway to improvement – the people attending university today will be influencing society and helping to run the country in the future. So if we can get people informed at university level, then we have hope for the future. Getting more refugees to attend university would be brilliant.”

During the afternoon workshop, Revd Keith Hebden led participants in theological reflection, allowing students to reflect on the current refugee crisis and discuss small practical actions to take with them to their student groups.