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Providing sanctuary

Rebecca Murray and Maryam Taher suggest how universities can help those fleeing Ukraine

It is hard to process the intense emotions experienced in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In the UK, we are bearing witness to intense Russian action via highly distressing news footage and social media posts conveying images of brutal attacks on civilians, including children, as they endeavour to flee the fighting and seek sanctuary outside their country.

The mass displacement of people from Ukraine is the most recent humanitarian crisis to impact Europe, but not the first—and while individual experiences of disruption are unique, the consequences are not.

How do we translate a visceral emotional reaction, underpinned by an overwhelming desire to ‘help’, into pragmatic and collective action? How can the higher education sector effectively mitigate (some of) the impact of displacement? The answer lies in an inclusive and collective approach to understanding needs, identifying solutions and implementing change, embedded in university structures and processes.

Common challenges

Reports of frustrating interactions between Ukrainians and UK border control, exemplified by ‘pushbacks’ in Calais, suggest that, in spite of a wave of positive public opinion, Ukrainians will still encounter a ‘hostile environment’ in the UK.

It is tempting to try to separate the needs of people fleeing Ukraine from the wider challenges posed by forced displacement and global migration, and in doing so to reduce their needs to simply requiring a visa to enter the UK (and by extension a UK university). This approach ignores the complex consequences of conflict and persecution that displace people not just from their physical home but from a sense of belonging, friends, family, networks, culture, careers and education.

The higher education challenges awaiting or currently experienced by people displaced from Ukraine are ‘everyday borders’ already encountered by students and academics from elsewhere with precarious immigration status who are wanting to commence or continue their studies, research or teaching in the UK.

These primarily centre on immigration status and its direct relationship to funding. On what basis will Ukrainians be afforded the right to study? Will they be categorised as home or international students? Most importantly, from where will funding be secured to cover the cost of tuition fees and maintenance?

Evidence of prior education, qualifications and experience (particularly challenging when fleeing an acute situation) and English language skills will also be sought. All of these challenges will be exacerbated by a lack of familiarity with UK systems and processes (whether accessing them in-country or from further afield) and will compound trauma-related pressures connected to the ongoing conflict and struggles to adapt to new surroundings.

What can universities do?

In the context of the government’s agenda of exclusion evident in the Nationality and Borders Bill and the absence of strategies that promote integration, UK universities have a pivotal role to play in designing and implementing inclusive policies and practice.

Learning from how the higher education sector responded to conflicts in Syria, the Middle East and north Africa (2015) and Afghanistan (2021) should help. Reactive, crisis-led responses to people displaced from Syria and Afghanistan did not always lend themselves well to successful initiatives; scholarships often failed to adopt a holistic approach and consider the students’ journey from pre-application to access and to opportunities after graduation.

The Mapping Opportunities initiative has explored the activities of UK universities in relation to forced migrant students, detailing a decade of Sanctuary Scholarship initiatives for people with precarious immigration status from 2008 onwards. Sanctuary Scholarships were the result of grassroots campaigning that merged into a social movement led by young migrants, university students and a wide range of organisations invested in breaking down barriers to university.

Action by students and senior leaders has led to campaigns including Equal Access, which helps refugees to access higher education; Lift the Ban, which seeks to overturn the government’s ban on people seeking asylum being able to work; and Together with Refugees, which campaigns for a more compassionate approach to supporting refugees in the UK.

Actions by the higher education sector must be shaped through inclusive frameworks like these that support everyone, including people fleeing Ukraine, so that in humanitarian crises, the response is less crisis-focused and more embedded. Universities must first understand the gaps and needs not only of current and prospective Ukrainian students and staff but also of non-Ukrainian nationals who have been displaced from the country.

Beyond scholarships, universities can respond rapidly through making available wellbeing and trauma support, through offering research opportunities such as those identified by Science for Ukraine, by organising evacuations (for example through the Council for At-Risk Academics), through helping with accommodation, through making legal advice, hardship and emergency funding available, and through providing education and employment pathways.

We would encourage the higher education sector to approach the crisis in Ukraine in three ways. First, to recognise the legacy of the grassroots ‘access to higher education’ movement and specifically its expertise developed to date. Second, to see that the crisis in Ukraine offers an opportunity to implement inclusive initiatives that are not determined by narrow eligibility criteria. Finally, to understand the importance of affording people with lived experience the power to lead and shape the response.

Flexible approach

The Universities of Sanctuary initiative, part of the City of Sanctuary UK movement, is a strategic way for universities to achieve a culture of welcome for people with precarious immigration status. The Universities of Sanctuary model helps universities to develop a connected institution-wide response to create a place of welcome and sanctuary. Migrant voices are central in its design and delivery, and the work is not possible without feedback from students with lived experience, and organisations that empower them.

One of the most powerful lessons we and many of our university partners have learned is to create systems and processes that can be implemented flexibly.

The situation in Ukraine is likely to have an even greater impact than the conflicts in Syria or Afghanistan on UK academia. But what we need to do in response is develop robust and continual support rather than use approaches that are short term and exclusively target recipients based on nationality.

Many people will arrive in the UK who are not ready to engage with higher education for several years, for many different reasons. Nor do we want people to feel under pressure to continue their education or research immediately when there is so much ongoing uncertainty and trauma to deal with. Instead, the support must be there whenever anyone who has experienced displacement requires it.

The situation in Ukraine will result in many creative and innovative approaches to providing education in the aftermath of displacement. We need to ensure that they are universally applied.

Rebecca Murray is a lecturer in sociological studies at the University of Sheffield and a member of the Universities of Sanctuary steering committee. Her research focuses on the role of post-compulsory education in mitigating the impact of forced displacement.

Maryam Taher is lead coordinator for the Universities of Sanctuary group and regional coordinator for the north-west of England and south-west Yorkshire. She accessed university as an asylum seeker through a Sanctuary Scholarship.