We must avoid losing the talents of a generation of refugee students


Picture of Baroness Valerie Amos
Baroness Valerie Amos

Master of University College Oxford and Trustee of Friends of Europe

Valerie Amos is Director of SOAS University of London and a former UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs

There are nearly 21.3 million refugees worldwide, around half of whom are under the age of 18, according to the latest figures from the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. But what is the future for this generation of young people? And since it is vital that they continue their studies, what can universities do?

Before the current conflict, young people in Syria had good access to higher education. The Syrian education ministry allocated around five percent of the country’s gross domestic product to education. In the 2012-13 academic year there were an estimated 650,000 students in higher education.

Figures from the Institute of International Education show that there are at least 100,000 university-qualified students and 2,000 university professionals from Syria alone among those displaced. Many have come to the UK. So how can British higher education institutions help to ensure that this generation of students does not miss out?

An online petition by the campaign group Refugees Welcome in 2015 urged university heads to open their doors to refugees, and higher education institutions such as SOAS University of London, the London School of Economics (LSE), and the universities of Warwick, Sussex and Edinburgh did so. Today, around 40 universities offer some form of support to refugees.

In developing a suitable scheme at SOAS we encountered challenges, particularly given that our aim was to reach the most vulnerable. The first challenge was eligibility and determining who was a ‘refugee’. The second was the scope of the awards on offer. The third was determining whether targeting assistance was needed – such as providing support for English language skills to help them further their education.

Student refugees have made considerable contributions to the British economy, academia, science, culture and the arts

Our decision to target the most vulnerable students meant developing criteria that was specifically for people who did not qualify for financial support. Our five-year scheme provides fee waivers for six undergraduate students and one postgraduate student and will typically be open to those who are in the process of seeking asylum, have discretionary leave to remain, require humanitarian protection, or have limited leave to remain.

But while this is a step in the right direction, it is not enough. In 2016 Dr Georgina Brewis at University College London’s Institute of Education published a paper on ‘Student solidarity across borders’. She argued that a sector-wide approach is needed rather than a “patchwork” response.

University students, she wrote, form a highly-skilled and motivated group of refugees that has historically given back to receiving societies much more than they have received in aid. She added that student refugees have made considerable contributions to the British economy, academia, science, culture and the arts as well as to society more generally. So we cannot afford to let this exceptional pool of students slip away. We know that it is taking longer and longer to resolve conflicts, but at some point in the future we hope that countries will return to peace and stability. When they do, the serious task of rebuilding begins. Countries will need all their talent to support that rebuilding process. We must do all that we can to support the next generation. And there are some initiatives that can help.

Digital access to higher education could offer a solution. MOOCs4inclusion aims to assess the use of massive open online courses and free digital learning among refugees and migrants. The platform provides a catalogue offering refugees access to higher education resources, support to learn a language or to develop a skill for employment, and help to integrate in countries in the European Union.

The European University Association has brought together the activities of universities aiming to help refugees through a Refugees Welcome Map. It features around 250 European participants from more than 30 countries who are working to support refugee students, researchers and academic staff.

We must ensure that we don’t lose a generation of young people through a lack of education and opportunity

SOAS is an institutional supporter of the Council for Assistance to Refugee Academics (CARA). Since 2008 the SOAS Centre for Gender Studies has offered fellowships and mentoring programmes to female academic refugees from across the world.

While maintaining access to higher education for refugees presents challenges, there is also the issue of how best to support refugees as they seek to integrate into a new society. Very often their skills and qualifications are not recognised.

At SOAS we are piloting a new extracurricular language learning programme, called Chatterbox. This is an initiative that employs refugees to help deliver language education to university students. The scheme offers SOAS language students one-hour sessions with native language speakers to help them practice and improve their speaking and listening skills.

Student initiatives also play an important part in supporting refugees. Last year SOAS students launched Camden Cares, a project in London to help settle incoming refugee families from Syria. Through sport sessions, cultural events and translation services, the students worked with twenty Syrian refugee families who had recently been housed by the London Borough of Camden.

These are small but important steps in the face of a backlash against refugees seen in the United States and so many countries in Europe. But we must continue to do all we can to raise awareness of the plight of refugees and the reasons for their displacement. And we must continue to ensure that we don’t lose a generation of young people through a lack of education and opportunity.

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