UK universities must open their doors to refugees to prevent a 'lost generation' | Joanna Newman

Imagine that your home country is so unsafe that you have to flee from the nightmares of war, famine or persecution. You have to leave behind family, friends, belongings – and your education. As it stands, there are 70.8 million people displaced globally, including nearly 26 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. Only 3% of refugees have access to higher education. This is a catastrophic waste of potential.

The UN’s 2030 agenda for sustainable development calls for the international community to ensure that “no one is left behind”, including the growing number of refugees and displaced people. Despite this, until recently the conversation has been focused almost exclusively on securing access to basic education. Now, on world access to higher education day, universities must think about how they can open their doors to more refugees too.

Education doesn’t only benefit the individual, but also the community they are part of. It serves to develop people to their fullest, and in turn build stronger, safer, healthier societies for us all. And, in the case of refugees and displaced people, it can provide them with the skills needed to tackle some of the uniquely challenging issues they face in both their host nations and their countries of origin.

Unfortunately, for the overwhelming majority of refugees and displaced people, access to higher education is blocked by a number of barriers. These obstacles vary from financial restrictions, since refugees are often expected to pay inflated international student fees, to psychosocial or cultural barriers.

But perhaps the greatest barrier is the lack of recognition of prior qualifications achieved in their countries of origin. When people flee war or persecution, documents can be lost or destroyed, making it harder to provide proof of their educational achievements. Even for those who do manage to salvage documentation of their previous studies, these often aren’t recognised by a different educational system. This is due to a historic and systemic lack of flexibility on the part of many universities.

This must change. Unesco’s new global convention on the recognition of higher education qualifications is a significant start: it will provide a global standardised process for countries to understand and map out which university qualifications are equivalent. It obliges countries to put in place ways to recognise refugees’ qualifications, even if they cannot provide any documentary evidence.

A more flexible approach to admissions criteria is already being introduced at a number of universities across the UK, thanks to initiatives such as the Universities of Sanctuary, which works to support institutions in enrolling refugees and displaced people. It offers member universities support with finding different ways to assess academic achievements in the absence of complete qualification documents.

It’s incredibly important that universities realise that by being more flexible about refugees’ qualifications they aren’t lowering the standards of their institution, but increasing the number of students who are exceedingly determined and resilient. This will enrich the classroom with a diversity of perspectives. To date, 13 universities in Britain have been classified at Universities of Sanctuary, with 30 more working towards recognition.

Of course, most displaced people have neither the means nor the opportunity to travel to the UK, but studying at university no longer means having to attend a physical campus thanks to technology. We need innovative approaches to deliver education in difficult environments such as refugee camps. The Partnership for Digital Learning and Increased Access, led by King’s College London, is one such example, increasing access to higher education for refugee and disadvantaged host communities in Jordan and Lebanon through new online programmes.

Migration is one of the major global challenges of our time, and there is already talk of a “lost generation” of young refugees. Education is the route to a better life – and universities can help provide the solutions, through expanding access on campus and beyond.


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