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Aisha: fighting for a university education

19 March 2018

Many young asylum seekers, and others without settled immigration statuses, struggle to get to university. Charlie Jones from SOAS, University of London, has written this article to explain what his university is doing in response. 

As sixth form winds to a close many young people are looking to the next step, university. But for some, worries about getting the required grades are just a part of their uncertainty about the future. 

They are people like Aisha Seriki, who despite living in the UK since she was eight, can’t access the usual funding for university.
 
Unlike for those with refugee status, who can access Student Finance like UK nationals, many hopeful students who fall between the gaps of the UK’s complex immigration system can’t.
 
Often these young people, having spent most of their life in the UK, aren’t even aware of this lack of access to Student Finance. As Aisha told New Internationalist: “It’s a hidden problem, some people find out when they apply and by then it’s just too late.”

Not only are they excluded from Student Finance but are often considered ‘international students’ at the discretion of individual institutions. This means to go to university they would not just need the £9,000 per year in tuition fees required of domestic students but up to £26,000 per year. Either way these costs mean for the vast majority of young people with precarious status, studying at university is just not an option. Aisha had no way to self fund her university education, her mum was raising three daughters by herself and what little money left was spent on various immigration fees.

The advantage of a university education is clear. Graduates earn on average £12,000 more per year than their non-graduate peers. These marked differences can be seen in other areas such as life expectancy, quality of life and prospects for future children. None of these are afforded to those who can’t access funding. Aisha didn’t give up on university though. Through the organisation called Let Us Learn (LUL) she found out about the different options for funding available. The group consists of young people in London, who like Aisha have precarious immigration status. Together they campaign for equal access to education on behalf of those in a similar position. LUL are in direct contact with 600 students across the country who are excluded from education on these grounds but they estimate that there are thousands more out there. As Aisha said: “Once again I was at the mercy of these laws. I couldn’t accept it. I had nothing else. I knew I had to fight.”

Having been excluded from higher education as an outcome of immigration policy, it fell to individual universities to give displaced students a chance. SOAS is one of the growing number of UK universities giving those with precarious immigration status the opportunity to study. The university’s Sanctuary Scholarships give seven people each year the opportunity at a full tuition fee waiver. The chance at a different life. 

Not only did the management agree to waive the fees of those awarded the scholarship but the entire SOAS community raised funds for the scholars’ living costs.  Without access to maintenance loans, prospective scholars would be required to fund their own travel, accommodation and food if they wanted to study. In an expensive city like London this would add an impossible pressure alongside studying.

An incredibly successful fundraising campaign among alumni of the university raised hundreds of thousands of pounds. The Student’s Union donated a large sum and even individual students mobilised with various fundraising schemes such as sponsored runs, t-shirt sales and ticketed events. All this has ensured that the scholars have financial support for the coming years. 

The Sanctuary Scholarships are the result of a long student led campaign called Education Beyond Borders. It went on to involve academics and eventually the university’s management. Once Aisha had started her studies she wanted to get involved with this campaign: “my main aim was to help others like me in the same situation. One of the ways I could do this was to create more awareness within the student body. To build on existing work and to create fundamental change.” She joined those fighting for more equal access to education. Faced with Europe’s borders closing around them the SOAS community did and continues to do everything they can to ensure that their university stayed open.

Click here to support SOAS' Sanctuary Scholarships

Find out how our higher education team helps asylum-seeking students get to university

Photo credit: SOAS

Categories: Higher education
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