Whose ‘home’ is here? Equal access to education in the UK

Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

Article 26, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Despite declarations on the right to education, refugees and asylum-seekers in the UK face several barriers to education.[i] As the National Union of Students (NUS) explains, “complexities around their legal status, crippling international student fees and a lack of financial support mean that education is just not an option for the vast majority of these potential students”. One problem, which faces asylum seekers specifically, is that they are not recognised as home students by higher education institutions.[ii] As a result, asylum seekers, who have no access to student loans or bursaries, and no right to work in the UK, can be asked to pay up to £27,000 a year. Clearly higher education is not equally accessible to all.

Since 2008, STAR and NUS have been advocating Equal Access to Education for students seeking refugee protection, including asylum seekers and people with Discretionary Leave to Remain (DLR).[iii] Their aims are two-fold:

  1. That all those seeking refugee protection be able to study as home students
  2. That students seeking refugee protection be recognised as having additional needs just like other vulnerable groups and be given equal access to additional support, such as bursaries.

Case study: equal access at the University of Sussex

The national Equal Access campaign has had success at universities across the country and September 2015 sees progress at another, as the University of Sussex introduces two new scholarships for students with Discretionary Leave to Remain in the UK. The scholarships are the outcome of a year long campaign, led by Alicia Coupland (then Equalities and Diversities Officer at Sussex’s Student Union) and supported by Sussex STAR, asking for Equal Access to a Sussex Education for people seeking refugee protection in the UK.

Sussex UniThe new scholarships include an “Overseas fee waive plus £3,000 cash award per year of study” and are available to undergraduate students who have been granted Discretionary Leave to Remain in the UK, have received an offer of a conditional or unconditional place at Sussex, have not already obtained a degree or equivalent qualification from another institution, are not eligible for student loans, and have a household income below £42,620.

What the scholarships fail to address, however, is the inaccessibility of education for asylum seekers who do not have Discretionary Leave to Remain, many of whom are forced to wait several years in the system before the Home Office issues a decision. Furthermore, while undoubtedly a step in the right direction, the provision of DLR scholarships ignores the overriding question of ‘home’ for students seeking refugee protection, who are still classified as ‘overseas’ students at Sussex.

What is ‘home’?

I recently found myself chatting to an Italian friend about the word ‘home’. In Italian there is just one word – ‘casa’ – to convey what, in English, is divided in two: ‘house’ and ‘home’. According to LearnersDictionary.com, the main difference between these words is that “house is more concrete”.

House refers to a building in which someone lives. In contrast, a home can refer either to a building or to any location that a person thinks of as the place where she lives and that belongs to her. A home can be a house or an apartment, but it could also be a tent, a boat, or an underground cave. A home can even be something abstract, a place in your mind. When you say, “Let’s go home,” you are probably not talking simply about going to the physical structure where you live. You are talking about being in the special place where you feel most comfortable and that belongs to you. LearnersDictionary.com

As implied in the quote above, ‘home’ can describe both a lived-in space and a space of “imagined belonging”, often understood as somewhere we feel an affective or emotional ‘sense of home’.

Although traditionally understood as a sedentary household of collective ownership and common hearth, today home seems to be much more complicated than the mere physical location where a person lives. It is a combination of relationships, physicality, symbolic significance, imagination, material goods, memory and feelings; and something that may be imagined or remembered as much as physical. Moreover, contemporary patterns of migration and mobility have challenged understandings of home as fixed and singular. In fact, we may do better to think of ‘home’ as potentially multiple.

At different times in all our lives ‘home’ will mean something different to us. We may have one home or many, either simultaneously at the same time or at different moments of our lives. Now imagine that you are a migrant? Transnationalism research reveals some of the complexities you might face with families, friends, loyalties and possessions multiply-located in two of more countries. You may have two or more ‘homes’ where you have a sense of belonging and attachment.[iv]

Now imagine you’re an asylum seeker. How many homes do you have?

Who is ‘at home’ in the UK education system?

Despite the conceptual debates occurring in social science classrooms across the UK about the nature and meaning of home, students in those classrooms continue to be administratively divided into ‘home’ and non-home students. The division, which is based on Government definitions, ignores any affective or subjective understanding of home as a space of comfort and belonging. Rather, being a ‘home’ student is solely dependent on immigration status and residency.

‘Home students’ must have been “ordinarily” – habitually, normally and lawfully – resident in the UK for three years prior to the start of the course and must also be “settled” in the UK – i.e. have no restrictions on their length of stay – on the first day of their course.[v] This latter requirement obviously includes all British citizens, as well as anyone with Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR), but excludes those with (temporary) Discretionary Leave and those whose status is undetermined and are awaiting a decision on their case.[vi] As such, access to Higher Education is a virtual impossibility for anyone awaiting a decision on an asylum application.

Calling for ‘home’ status

Asylum seekers are not international students. They have not chosen to come to the UK for study, but have been forced to seek refuge in the UK. The vast majority of applicants have fled war, torture or persecution and on arrival are forbidden from working – forced instead to live on a budget of roughly £36 a week. Many young asylum seekers will have completed their secondary and even primary education in this country and yet, when they reach 18 and finish school, they face huge barriers to further education at universities across the UK.

As their peers move on the employment or Higher Education, their lives are put on hold. Without student loans or the right to work they are stuck. International student fees – charged to international students who have a choice to come to the UK or not – are simply out of reach for the majority. The effect of this can be catastrophic for individuals like Nida Ul-Naseer who disappeared in 2014, age 19, following an argument with her family over their inability to send her to university.

Despite being a model student and achieving the necessary grades, Nida’s asylum status meant that her family simply could not afford to pay for her to go to university. High achieving students like Nida, desperate to go to university but unable to afford it, are locked out of education and cast into limbo at a crucial time in their lives through no fault of their own. This, despite having already overcome immeasurable linguistic and social barriers to education.

While we are probably all aware that ‘home’ has connotations of belonging, of being comfortable and in-place, we may be less aware of some of its more rigid uses, including in Higher Education. While they are here, living in the UK, with nowhere else to call home, would it really be so bad to offer asylum-seekers a ‘home’ here; if not in the country itself then at least in its institutions of learning? Universities can use their discretion to re-classify asylum seekers as ‘home students’ but it rests with those of us who study and work in those institutions to push for change that would allow home status for all of those seeking refuge, not just the few awarded one of these new scholarships. After all, asylum seekers are not able to just ‘go home’ and study.

[i] This blog refers specifically to higher education policy in England.

[ii] In the UK, students are classified as either ‘home/EU’, ‘Islands’ or ‘overseas’ students, according to fixed Government definitions.

[iii] Discretionary Leave to Remain gives asylum applicants temporary permission to stay in the UK. Many unaccompanied asylum seeking children are granted DLR until 18 when they must apply for extension.

[iv] Importantly, emigration does not signify complete departure in the hearts and minds of migrants who often continue to identify with the ‘homeland’. In research with Senegalese migrants in Italy, for example, Riccio describes how migrants remain strongly attached to places in their country of origin despite living transient and transnational lives. Migration did not provoke an emotional or practical detachment from Senegal or change the migrants’ perceptions of Senegal as ‘home’.

[v] Other groups permitted to pay ‘home’ fees include: EU nationals and family, EU Nationals in the UK, those with Indefinite Leave to Remain in the UK, EEA/Swiss workers and family, Children of a Swiss National, Children of a Turkish worker, Refugees and family, People granted humanitarian protection and their family (via www.ukcisa.org.uk/International-Students/Fees–finance/Home-or-Overseas-fees/England-Higher-Education/)

[vi] Notably citizenship alone is also inadequate to be considered a ‘home’ student.

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