Refugees struggle to access universities, but Scotland is showing a way forward

Towards inclusion. Daniel M Ernst

Read university guidelines about reaching out to the diverse range of people in society and you’ll find all the usual phrases about “widening access”, “encouraging participation” and “public engagement”. These kinds of commitments are longstanding and laudable, but rarely controversial.

Until now – Universities Scotland, the umbrella body for higher education north of the border, has extended a hand of welcome to the only group where it is brave to do so – refugees and asylum seekers. It has published new guidance for how universities in Scotland should handle applications from this non-traditional group.

This is a response to the substantial numbers of Mediterranean refugees, largely from Syria, trying to reach safety in Europe in the past couple of years. Many have been university students or professionals in their own countries and are looking to continue their studies in the UK – or to have their qualifications recognised.

University administrators have to decide what level of study if any is appropriate, comparing the applicant’s previous studies and qualifications in their own country. In many cases, the potential students have lost everything and would only be able to attend courses with scholarships or some other kind of exceptional funding.

So are the new guidelines a counter-cultural move by academia, home to the expert elites so mistrusted and derided by Brexiteers? Are Scottish universities striking a powerful altruistic blow for human rights and minority recognition? Or does this represent grandstanding opportunism and political expediency on a newly dispiriting scale? This matters to me personally, as one of the few black academics in Scotland.

Open book? AN NGUYEN

Differences in emphasis

Scotland is similar to England when it comes to how it engages with refugees and asylum seekers in general, but its political narrative is sounding increasingly different. Take the Vulnerable Persons Relocation scheme, for example, Westminster’s belated response to those seeking refuge from Syria.

By September, Scotland had taken about 1,200 out of the total 4,000 resettled in the UK. These are tiny numbers compared to more than a million people settled in mainland Europe and over 4m in the Middle East and north Africa, but Scotland’s ability to respond has been controlled by reserved legislation. It has done so with a tone and speed that makes the most of its limited parameters – irrespective of the political opportunism undoubtedly in the mix.

The Universities Scotland initiative looks to be in a similar spirit, stealing a march on the rest of the UK, where refugees applying university face exactly the same problems. Universities throughout the world have traditionally sought to respond to the needs of refugees through the likes of scholarships, distance learning, language courses and specific programmes, but there is no centralised funding available to help Scottish universities cover such costs when it comes to refugee applicants with no resources.

Looking to the future. Bebeto Matthews/PA

Yet the fact that Scottish university principals and vice principals are supporting the initiative has created the space to implement assistance openly and purposefully. This should improve on the current situation, where refugee applicants tend to need to find a willing personal champion on the inside to prevent the system blocking them by failing to recognise the reality of their life experiences.

The new guidance also alerts each university to how its processes might empower or obstruct a particularly vulnerable refugee, and ways in which the admission process might support them. It specifically highlights where normal university processes would obstruct someone who has come either without all their documentation, or has had their studies interrupted, or can’t supply the usual references or professional accreditation certificates. The internal changes that this requires are not straightforward: they entail levels of trust and flexibility not usually associated with university bureaucracy.

The guidance requires academic departments to adapt, too. Teaching staff are used to working with new students adjusting to life in a new country, but refugee students may be so bewildered and traumatised that returning to study holds a complex mix of therapeutic positives and emotional difficulties.

Refugees can meanwhile take the guidance as a visible sign they are welcome. It says that although there can be immense practical difficulties to studying in their destination country, it is possible.

The value of the move

I have personal and professional experience of the unsettling and increasing ways in which migrants and other people who don’t fit an unspecified norm can be “othered”. The near constant political and media narrative during the EU referendum took it to a different level. Scotland cannot be complacent here: though it has not seen the recent increased racist crime reported in the rest of the UK following Brexit, levels have not fallen either.

James Baldwin. Wikimedia

In this context, public efforts like this one from Universities Scotland are important. As the writer James Baldwin once said while discussing the evidence of black people being obstructed and denied access in 1960s America: “I can only conclude what [white people] feel from the state of their institutions.”

If you believe, as I do, that access to education is one of the most socially effective and morally important drivers for integration and development, this new guidance is unequivocally good news. It shows that universities in Scotland are working to build on mechanisms which enable people to study and to regain the professional and vocational levels they had achieved in their countries of origin. No more students having to needlessly repeat and find funding for years of study that they shouldn’t need to go through. No more engineers, doctors and scientists working as carers, taxi drivers or security guards.

Coming shortly after the news of Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, it feels like a breath of fresh air in an otherwise polluted political environment.