Featured Image: John Englart (Takver)/Flickr CC-by-SA

Article 26 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has a right to education. Yet for asylum seekers living in the UK, the international fees, absence of appropriate training for university staff, and lack of access to student loans make accessing university almost impossible. The University of Oxford is no exception. 

Asylum seekers are people living in the UK who have applied for refugee status, but who have not received either a confirmation or rejection from the government. The process is lengthy – in 2020, only around 17% of asylum claims were processed within 6 months, with the rest taking longer. When a person is waiting for the verdict of their asylum application, it is illegal for them to work. This ban is only lifted if they are waiting for over a year to hear back from the government.  

Consequently, asylum seekers often have no means of saving up to pay for university fees. If they did work whilst awaiting a result, they would risk their asylum claim being rejected on the grounds of breaking the law. Instead, asylum seekers must get by on their £37.75 p/week government allowance to buy food, toiletries, clothes, shoes and everything else they need. Even if an asylum seeker somehow saved all of their allowance money for the whole year, this money would not fund a single term of Oxford fees. 

To make matters worse, asylum seekers are classed as International students rather than Home students by the government. The University of Oxford admissions team has confirmed that Oxford requires all asylum seekers to pay international fees. International undergraduate tuition fees vary: the majority are over £20,000 per year, with the most expensive going up to £38,000 or more for medical degrees. As they are not British citizens, asylum seekers are not eligible for government student loans to help them pay these fees. 

Yet it is within the University of Oxford’s power to change this. Although the government classes asylum seekers as international students, it is up to the discretion of each university whether or not they choose to charge asylum seekers international fees. Currently, ten UK universities advertise a policy of charging asylum seekers home fees rather than international fees. These universities are Bath, Cardiff, Edge Hill, Edinburgh, Exeter, Leicester, Manchester, Newcastle, UCL, and Queen Mary, University of London. The University of Oxford should follow suit.  

I spoke to Dan Webb, a Programme Coordinator at Refugee Support Network, about other obstacles asylum seekers and refugees face when accessing higher education. He explained that there are more consequences of lumping asylum seekers into the same category as other international students: 

“English Language requirements is a big issue for accessing higher education. That’s where the Tier 4 student conditions [referring to the conditions of student visa that other international students apply for] bleed into the issues to do with asylum seekers. Universities will ask asylum seekers to have a certain IELT score but legally speaking, there is no obligation for an asylum seeker to meet those same English language requirements [as international students]. There are other English language tests that they could get scores from but universities don’t accept them. So unrealistic English language requirements is a barrier for sure.”  

Dan explained that lack of appropriate training in the majority of higher education staff can also act as a barrier:

“For example, at one of these universities that charge asylum seekers home fees, there was an admissions staff member who wouldn’t accept the documents that an asylum seeker was sending over to prove she was an asylum seeker. That wasn’t because they were being pernicious, it was just that they didn’t know enough about the asylum process.”  

The consequences of this lack of training are not just practical, but can also affect the wellbeing of asylum-seeking applicants:  

“It’s also just insensitivity about how they communicate with asylum seekers who have potentially gone through really traumatic experiences. To be met with people who don’t communicate with compassion or sensitivity can be hugely off-putting for displaced people.” 

Taken together, these factors make Oxford inaccessible for asylum seekers. Whilst some colleges within the university have begun to make changes, more needs to be done. 

The University of Sanctuary Campaign, partnered with Student Action for Refugees (STAR), seeks to support universities to develop a culture and a practice of welcome within their institutions. Achieving University of Sanctuary status involves making several commitments to refugee and asylum seeker students. These include financial support and scholarships, raising awareness of related issues through events, and the appointment of a member of staff who is an official point of contact for refugee and asylum seeker students.

Here at Oxford, University of Sanctuary status can be achieved by each individual college becoming a college of Sanctuary. Mansfield and Somerville colleges have already made their applications, whilst others have expressed interest. This is one step towards making Oxford a place where anyone who deserves to study here is able to. Jess Wallis, the president of Oxford’s STAR, summarised why this campaign is something we should care about: 

“The University of Sanctuary campaign is so important  – not only does it drive Oxford to make practical changes, like introducing scholarships, which have a huge impact on access to higher education, but it also helps signal that the university is a place which supports and welcomes refugees and asylum seekers.”

“For an institution as well-renowned as Oxford, becoming a University of Sanctuary sets an important precedent for others to follow; enabling higher education institutions to become safer places where those seeking sanctuary can fulfil their potential, and helping to fight back against the hostile environment in the UK.” 

When asked for comment, the University of Oxford told The Oxford Blue that

“The university and colleges have taken a number of initiatives to support asylum seekers and refugees, and we are pleased that some colleges have applied for sanctuary status.”

What can you do to help?

Sign this petition 

Use this template to email your college’s access/admin/development team (and get your friend to send one too!)

Keep up to date by following STAR’s Facebook and Instagram

Want to read more? 

Unicef have released a report on refugees and asylum seekers accessing education in the UK and a list of recommendations for higher education institutes.

Freya Rennison

Freya does Psychology and Philosophy at Teddy Hall and is in her third year.