Providing Shelter – News from Research Professionals

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

It is difficult to process the intense emotions experienced in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In the UK, we are witnessing intense Russian action via very distressing news footage and social media posts carrying images of brutal attacks on civilians, including children, as they stalk are trying to flee the fighting and seek refuge 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 to translate a visceral emotional reaction, underpinned by an irresistible desire to “help”, into pragmatic and collective action? How can the higher education sector effectively mitigate (part of) the impact of displacement? The answer lies in an inclusive and collective approach to understanding needs, identifying solutions and implementing change, integrated into university structures and processes.

Common challenges

Reports of frustrating interactions between Ukrainians and UK border control, exemplified by the ‘pushbacks’ in Calais, suggest that despite a wave of positive public opinion, Ukrainians will still face a ‘hostile environment’ 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 reduce their needs to just applying for a visa to enter the UK (and by extension a British university). This approach ignores the complex consequences of conflict and persecution that alienate people not only from their physical home, but also from a sense of belonging, friends, family, networks, culture, career and life. ‘education.

Higher education challenges pending or currently faced by displaced persons from Ukraine are the “everyday borders” already encountered by students and scholars from elsewhere with precarious immigration status who wish to begin or continue their studies , research or teaching in the UK.

These focus primarily on immigration status and its direct relationship to funding. On what basis will Ukrainians have the right to study? Will they be classified as domestic or international students? More importantly, where will funding be secured from to cover tuition and maintenance costs?

Evidence of previous education, qualifications and experience (particularly difficult when fleeing a serious 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 pressures related to ongoing conflict-related trauma and difficulties in coping with the new environment.

What can universities do?

Against the backdrop of the government’s exclusionary agenda evident in the Nationality and Borders Bill and the absence of strategies to promote integration, UK universities have a central role to play in designing and implementing implementation of inclusive policies and practices.

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-focused responses to displaced people from Syria and Afghanistan did not always lend themselves well to successful initiatives; scholarships have often failed to take a holistic approach and consider the student journey from pre-application to post-graduation access and opportunities.

The Mapping Opportunities initiative 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. Sanctuary scholarships are the result from a grassroots campaign that coalesced into a social movement led by young migrants, university students and a wide range of organizations invested in breaking down barriers to university.

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

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

Beyond scholarships, universities can respond quickly by making wellness and trauma support available, providing research opportunities such as those identified by Science for Ukraine, organizing evacuations (e.g. through the Council for At-Risk Academics), helping with housing, providing legal advice, hardship and emergency funding, and providing education and employment pathways.

We encourage the higher education sector to address the crisis in Ukraine in three ways. First, recognize the legacy of the grassroots “access to higher education” movement and more 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, understand the importance of empowering people with lived experience 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 create a welcoming culture for people with precarious immigration status. The Universities of Sanctuary model helps universities develop a connected, institution-wide response to create a place of welcome and sanctuary. Migrant voices are central to its design and delivery, and the work is not possible without feedback from students with lived experience and the organizations 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 British academia. But what we need to do in response is to develop strong and continuous support rather than using short-term approaches and exclusively targeting beneficiaries based on their nationality.

Many people will arrive in the UK unprepared for a commitment to higher education for several years, for many different reasons. We also don’t want people to feel pressured to continue their studies or research immediately when there is so much uncertainty and trauma to deal with. Instead, support should be there whenever someone who has been displaced needs it.

The situation in Ukraine will result in many creative and innovative approaches to providing post-displacement education. We must ensure that they are universally applied.

Rebecca Murray is a Lecturer in Sociological Studies at the University of Sheffield and a member of the Governing Board of Sanctuary Universities. Her research focuses on the role of post-compulsory education in mitigating the impact of forced displacement.

Maryam Taher is Senior Coordinator of the Universities of Sanctuary group and Regional Coordinator for North West England and South West Yorkshire. She entered college as an asylum seeker on a Sanctuary scholarship.

Comments are closed.