In explaining the difficulties in accessing HE programmes, issues that can be classified as institutional were cited the most.Footnote 6 Sixteen participants have focused their accounts on these, with over 40% of references coded under this theme. Some of these difficulties result from national policies imposed on universities, others are a consequence of structures and processes put in by universities themselves—overlooking the legal, economic and social realities of RBS (the situational barriers), and ignorant of the exclusionary constraints these inflexible systems and processes result in. Within this top-level category, three sub-categories have been identified and labelled as: informational, procedural and financial factors.
A central finding emerging from participants’ accounts was the lack of timely, accessible, quality information available to them. Usually new to the country (see also Newcomer Factors below), RBS rely on the government, third sector organisations and other official bodies to provide them with all the information—and have no control over what these state and non-state bodies decide is the information they need. This lack of information permeates every stage of their experience, as has been evidenced in few studies already, both in the UK and other national contexts (Elwyn et al. 2012; Shakya et al. 2010; and Stevenson and Baker 2018). Firstly, RBS are unaware of their legal rights in relation to HE participation—these are not communicated with them as part of the immigration process, or in the information packs they receive in National Asylum Support Service (NASS)Footnote 7 accommodation or council provided housing for refugees arriving under the resettlement programme.Footnote 8 RBS are also unfamiliar with our education system and processes (see Procedural Factors section below) and do not know their financial entitlements (see: Financial Factors). The participants suggested that third sector organisations working with forced migrants focus their efforts on the provision of basic needs—legal advice, help with benefits and housing, etc.—as they lack the capacity and/or expertise to offer information and advice on HE. Indeed, as reported by several participants, charity workers (as well as college and university staff, and family members) often misinform them—telling the asylum seekers in particular that they cannot attend a university or access funding, as described by Zachary (34, AS, current student):
(…) I went online and asked some of the people at the Red Cross who we’ve worked with us as asylum seekers (…) ‘have you heard?’ And none of them heard. Everybody kept saying, no you are not allowed to [study], we don’t know...
Participants reported the information about requirements for holders of foreign qualifications on university websites to be inconsistent, found most institutions neglect to provide information aimed at RBS specifically, and lamented the fact that many universities fail to effectively communicate even about the specific opportunities created for the RBS. Those who have applied for the funded places have often found out about them by chance and last minute, subsequently failing to complete the application forms and gather necessary documentation in time. A regrettable consequence of this has been some institutions struggle to fill places offered on a funded basis (see Murray 2019). Lack of communication between universities, colleges, and third sector, to disseminate information about these opportunities was repeatedly criticised by the participants, who believe it to be relatively easy for universities to outreach to RBS:
Asylum seekers are the easiest people to track down (…) Just [be] specific - there is a group that meets at Newcastle, there is a group that meets at Middlesbrough, there is a group...wherever. (…) Go and say ‘hi, we’re from [X university] and we have this fantastic opportunity, here is our paperwork, if you are interested just look it up’. That’s it.
Before moving on to discuss procedural factors, and how they link with the abovementioned ones, it should be stressed here that those who secure a place at a university and obtain financial resources to support their studies, oftentimes face lack of appropriate, tailored pre-arrival information and guidance. Several participants in this study have raised the issue of universities not talking to them about the effects of moving to a different city to study may have on their accommodation and benefit entitlements, about the details of their scholarship, opening a bank account (required for their scholarship payments but difficult to open with limited documentation), or the academic expectations they should prepare themselves for. The impacts of this lack of information have been profound on RBS experiences both during the period of transitioning into university, and later in their HE journeys.
The next group of key inhibiting factors was the admissions and enrolment procedures. The level and type of credentials required for admission constitute a challenge, with most participants finding the procedures to be inflexible and bureaucratic. To begin with—and linking directly to, or indeed overlapping with the informational barriers (as discussed above) (Fig. 1) —it is not always easy for the applicant to find out whether an institution will accept their qualifications, as explained by Freya (23, AS, current student):
I basically contacted forty universities who did the scholarships - but I wanted to find out if they would accept me with my qualifications. (…) And then I found out how so many different universities have different ways of contacting - some of them didn't even reply, some replied straight away, some of them took a while.
While some RBS have the acceptable prior qualifications, they may not be unable to produce documentation to confirm this, left behind, or lost during their migration journey, as recounted by several participants, including Harry (26, R, Offer Holder):
I threw my bags to save three people. All my qualifications were in my bag. At the time it was a big decision for me - I protect my future or save three children’s lives. Of course, life [is more] important. Piece of paper is a piece of paper... I survived... but that's why I was struggling (…).
Although it is sometimes possible to get copies of certificates, the cost and formalities involved make it impossible for most. Restrictions around work and minimum statutory support - as discussed below in the Financial Factors section, mean that asylum seekers and newly granted refugees in particular cannot meet these costs. Generally, no alternative in-house forms of skills/knowledge assessment are offered by universities, and candidates (like Harry) are forced to retake lower level examinations/qualifications.
Another commonly emphasised factor was the formal language requirement. Participants have generally agreed that language competence is necessary for effective participation in HE learning and as such a valid part of the admissions process, but most struggle to obtain the required certification. This is partially due to the inadequate language training provision offered for those seeking sanctuary in England (as discussed in the Situational Barriers section below), but for those who have the skills necessary, the barriers may be more prosaic. Universities typically require that applicants obtain an IELTS (or alternative international standardised test of English language proficiency for non-native speakers) certificates—all of which involve a costly examination,Footnote 9 which can only be completed in a designated testing centre, usually located in larger cities around the country, thus, often necessitating (costly) travel– here too, clear link can be seen with the Financial Factors as discussed below. Again, generally, no alternative in-house examinations are offered by universities.
The final procedural factor is the mode of application itself. In England, all undergraduate (and some postgraduate) applications are made through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS). Applications are made online, but where other applicants often receive help navigating the website from their school or college, RBS are left to work it out alone:
It wasn’t that straightforward to do it yourself. Because - I think because of confidence. It wasn’t about the language or understanding the context of what is written down. It was kind of about the technique, how to use the website. There was a video on how to do it (…). But it seemed a bit complicated for me.
Universities and UCAS do not offer tailored guidance on how to complete an application and personal statement based on the RBS’ often unusual educational background, without access to documentation and without experiences similar to those of domestic applicants (again, other applicants often receive personalised help in drafting of these statements, either from their educational provider or an agent). Further, applicants are required to submit a written reference provided by someone who knows them academically and can talk about their suitability for HE. UCAS advises applicants to ask their tutor, teacher, principal or headteacher from current or recent school or college, or an employer or volunteering supervisor. For RBS who have not participated in any courses, and who have been in England for a relatively short amount of time and moved around the country at the Home Office’s order, it can prove difficult to find a suitable referee. Finally, there is an application fee to pay—between £18 and £24—a small amount for most applicants, but for RBS often living in destitution, making the payment for an application means they must make cutbacks elsewhere as explained by Freya:
You basically have to not eat for certain amount of days to pay that.
The above is perhaps the most fitting example of how the university admission processes—applying equal conditions to all potential learners—can lead to de facto inequality, when designed and administered in ignorance of the unequal socio-economic conditions of those with refugee backgrounds—associated with the migration journey itself and the process of seeking asylum in England. Those broader economic considerations are discussed further below, in the situational barriers section, but for now, the financial issues related directly to study costs as well as statutory and institutional funding options are discussed.
Participants in this and other recent studies in England (e.g., Morrice and Sandri 2018) confirm that financial concerns hinder HE access for many RBS. Firstly, the already mentioned (see Informational Factors section above) significant gap in understanding of the financial support entitlements for applicants with different immigration statuses—student loans system in England is complex, and participants have noted that easily accessible, clear information about eligibility or residency requirements online is scarce. Further, staff and volunteers working in colleges and third sector organisations were mostly unable to advise them appropriately.
Notably, unlike those with recognised refugee status,Footnote 10 asylum seekers are not eligible to access statutory funding. Moreover, they face unfavourable fee assessment—universities generally consider them to be ‘international students’ and require them to pay a higher level of tuition fees. This again is not communicated, as described by Thomas (24, AS, Current Student):
I was accepted to study (…), unfortunately, the university considered me as an overseas student which meant I had to pay £13,000 (…). I did not know that I was going to be charged £13,000 in the beginning. I raised £3,500 on GoFundMe and got a charity contribution to make £6,500 (…) but this was just enough to get enrolled...
This unfavourable fee status assessment has been recently extended to those with humanitarian protection (HP).Footnote 11 In the past, those with HP status applying for a course in England had to have been a resident in the UK for 3 years before the start of their course to access student loans, but they could access university and be automatically considered as ‘home’ student for fee purposes. From 1 August 2019, following changes in the fee regulations by the Department for Education (England), new students have to meet the 3-year residence criteria first or face international student fees, placing yet another barrier to access for those who may be otherwise able to begin their course (using own or bestowed funds).Footnote 12 This is likely to increase the competition for the already limited scholarships (discussed below), which for many—not wanting to wait for another 3 years to continue their education—will become the only route into HE.
Although 48 universities in England (in 2018/2019) offered fee-waivers to a small number of RBS, and some offered partial (18), or even ‘full’ maintenance support (18), this could only be accessed by those who have met all the entry requirements and were able to join the programme. Costs associated with the application and meeting of formal requirements (namely the language certification and replacing and/or translating documentation from home country, as noted above in the Procedural Factors section), as well as cost of moving out of publicly funded accommodation and into university halls or privately rented housing, are prohibitive for many and limit the range of institutions RBS can apply to (Fig. 2).
Now, while scholarships offered by an ever-growing number of institutions (particularly since 2015) undeniably facilitate pathways into HE for a number of RBS, there are several issues which participants felt universities need to reflect on when considering the introduction of a scholarship programme, or when evaluating an existing one. Firstly, the level of funding made available needs to be carefully considered. In 2018/2019, only five institutions offered maintenance support equivalent or higher to the maximum maintenance loan amount available in England—which has been reported to leave home students struggling financially, having to subsidise the loan with work and/or rely on a regular contributions from their parents (e.g., Antonucci 2016)—neither of which are possible for majority of RBS. Secondly, participants reported that each university has its own procedures, with separate forms and supporting documentation needed, with information about the selection criteria often “unclear and not transparent” (see also Informational Factors above):
This lack of information from the universities’ side was quite daunting especially knowing how competitive the opportunity is. Most universities had scholarships for about 2-3 students each academic year and it wasn’t very obvious what they were looking for aside from grades and personal statement.
(Ella, 20, Humanitarian Protection, Current Student)
Further, several institutions, perhaps unwittingly, put procedural roadblocks in the way of RBS, by requiring applicants to make decisions which ultimately limit their chances to access HE, as explained by Freya:
[W]hen you had to apply for the bursaries, the main condition was that you should have that university as your firm choice. So, [university 1] wanted me to have [university 1] as a firm choice, [university 2] wanted the same and [university 3] wanted the same. So, I basically had to weigh my chances out and go for a firm choice and apply for the scholarship to the one I was thinking I would [get].
Ultimately, the number of scholarships available is still limited and these can lift only a handful of individuals at a time into the system. While access to statutory funding remains restricted, additionally paired with several situational barriers—as discussed below—thousands of people will endure exclusion from England’s educational system, their potential and contribution untapped.
All of the previously mentioned institutional barriers are linked to, overlap with or are exacerbated by the situational ones, which can be defined as barriers relating to the individual’s broad circumstantial conditions (Cross 1981). As noted by Dench and Regan (2000), placing the responsibility to overcome such difficulties on the individuals, and framing these as ‘deficits’ on their part is highly problematic, as it dismisses the impact of structural issues. It is a view also presented in this paper, where it is argued that universities cannot effectively support access for RBS without understanding their socio-economic conditions and life within uncertain legal realities. Also, how such barriers interplay with the institutional ones, or how they may be perpetuated by the lack of support and inflexibility from universities.
As noted above, the major institutional barrier was the lack of timely, accessible information about RBS rights and entitlements to HE and related issues (see: Informational Factors). Although lack of information is a factor common with other under-represented groups (see for example Sanderson 2001, for a discussion about informational barriers faced by students with disabilities), it can be argued that those with refugee backgrounds are more vulnerable to this. This is because they are, in most cases, new to the country and therefore lack both the understanding of the rules and resources necessary to exert active agency, and do not have a network of relevant, supportive social relationships. Participants reported that they generally lack opportunities to integrate with citizens—people living, studying and working here, and are familiar with the system, who could provide guidance and support their higher education aspirations.
The effect of RBS recent arrival in the country can be further related to the procedural factors (Fig. 3)—namely the type of credentials and level of language fluency required. Some participants reported that despite previous experiences of education (in some cases including HE) in their home country or elsewhere, their knowledge and competencies were considered insufficient/irrelevant in the UK HE context. Unlike other newcomers who migrate to England for economic or familial reasons, or to study at a university as an international student—who are generally able to prepare for their migration by researching the educational system and institutions, learning the language and obtaining relevant language and academic qualifications, and preparing financially—those leaving their countries for humanitarian reasons, are unable to make such preparations.
While poverty is not uncommon in modern-day England (e.g., OHCHR 2018), the prevalent ‘hostile environment’ policies in EnglandFootnote 13 have weakened the benefit entitlements and restricted other forms of support available to asylum seekers and refugees. They have also been linked in recent reports with the increase in destitution amongst those groups, exceeding the levels of relative poverty faced by those from other marginalised groups (e.g., Joseph Rowntree Foundation 2018). Poverty and the linked difficulties in covering the costs of the application to a university (in the absence of alternative modes of application, one of Procedural Factors discussed), and moving to a new location or commuting, purchasing necessary books and equipment etc., are also experienced by many UK nationals. However, the additional cost faced by RBS, as discussed above (see: Financial Factors), and their particular circumstances, mean that these issues are particularly pronounced. Many participants reported the difficulties of fulfilling their most basic of needs during the period of waiting for their asylum application decision when they were reliant on the support of NASS. This provides them with accommodation and a weekly personal allowance, equating to about £5.39 per day—equivalent to only about 51% of the current income support received by single non-asylum seekers (aged over 25) in England.
The poverty which dampens prospects for HE is further entrenched by restrictions on employment. Participants described their frustrations with the current rules, under which asylum seekers in England are not permitted to work whilst awaiting a decision on their application, except with special permission, and if the job is included on the list of occupations with a shortage of workers (Home Office 2016). This includes roles in engineering, teaching, science, healthcare and IT—most requiring HE qualifications which they cannot obtain without access to statutory funding and/or support from the universities. Although those granted refugee status have a prima facie permission to work, refugees’ unemployment rates in England have been historically well above the national average.Footnote 14 Although no current data is available, there seems to be a consensus amongst third sector representatives and the RBS participants in this study, that employment opportunities for refugees remain very limited.
The highest cost for any student in England attending a university too far to commute from home is that of accommodation. Refugees who have the same rights as citizens, and as such may live in social housing before starting the course, would become ineligible upon commencement of a full-time course. Asylum seekers experience an additional layer of difficulty: NASS accommodation in England is offered under an overriding principle of allocation on a ‘no-choice basis’, mostly in areas of lower housing demand and low housing costs. Although asylum seekers can request transfers to accommodation in a different location, according to Home Office guidance, such requests are only likely to be considered in exceptional circumstances and requests due to moving to university would normally be refused (Home Office 2017). Therefore, the asylum-seeking student would have to give up their publicly funded accommodation and move to private sector housing. Unfortunately, under current regulations (Immigration Act 2014 which was amended by the Immigration Act 2016, and the Immigration (Residential Accommodation) (Prescribed Requirements and Codes of Practice) Order 2014), asylum seekers in England do not have an automatic ‘right to rent’, as explained by Ella:
As an asylum-seeking student, I could not rent or live in private student accommodation outside campus. All agencies and landlords are legally required to ask for passport/visa information from students to ensure they are legally eligible to rent. I was not eligible and therefore had no choice but to live on campus (…).
Asylum seekers like Ella can rent a property if landlords obtain permission by contacting the Landlord Checking Service, but because of this burden, the scheme places on the landlords, finding one who is willing to take them on as tenants can prove difficult. In any case, as is clear from the above statement, this is not something that RBS are necessarily aware of, nor something that universities provide information about (see also: Informational Factors). These difficulties lead to RBS’ reliance on (generally) more expensive university accommodation, resulting in them potentially becoming destitute, despite any scholarship they may receive (unless it includes free accommodation!) Once more, a strong link to the financial factors can be seen here. (Fig. 4).
Many participants who have discussed difficulties in meeting the language conditions of university offer described the level of language proficiency required as problematic—most universities require minimum IELTS scores between 5.5 and 7.0 (or equivalent scores for the other examinations accepted).Footnote 15 Although adult asylum seekers and (unemployed) refugees can attend funded English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) courses in England, the access is often delayed, with asylum seekers only becoming eligible 6 months after submitting the immigration application, and places not always readily available. This causes frustration for RBS stuck in a limbo—unable to work, study or even learn the language:
I went to [college] and they told me just to wait [for] six months. That was the first time. And the second time when I went to them (…) they said [to wait] 20 days and after that you come for assessment and we will know what level are you. And after that we will tell you when your studies will start. And they said that probably it will start in September. And this is a long time to spend, like one year, without any studies in the country.
(James, 26, AS, Non-applicant)
While the funded ESOL courses could, in theory, take RBS to the required level of efficiency, the provision seems to be concentrated on the lower, entry- level qualifications, as described by Freya:
They are only concerned about (…) the minimum [language skills], like going to the shops or meeting a GP, these kinds of thing.
Participants reported only very limited training available to develop higher level language skills necessary to pass the accepted examinations. This gap is sometimes filled by third sector organisations, where funding allows, with several participants reporting to have attended IELTS preparation courses either run by community organisations or privately run courses funded (on a case-by-case basis) by those organisations. The extent of support indicates that there is a demand for high-level language courses, and points to failures in state provision in this area, despite its claims to the contrary.
Next to language requirements, the level and type of credentials required for admissions were discussed above as key procedural factors. As mentioned, the inability to present documentation can be linked to the hasty departures from a home country, and the often-precarious ways in which RBS travel to England. However, it can be also linked to gaps in educational histories, which were reported by almost all the participants in this study (Fig. 5). This had a particular impact on the slightly older participants, who often described disappointment in having to re-do lower level qualifications to progress to HE in England:
[W]hen I asked what the qualification that I’ll need they [the university] have told me that even though I’ve done GCSE and I've done university, I still have to get GCSEs because it’s like I’m starting over. It’s been years, and I still have to do my GCSE again (…).
(Elizabeth, 50, R, Non-applicant)
Refugees can access training with concessionary rates if they are unemployed and in receipt of income-based benefits (or if they are employed but aged 19–23, studying for first full level 2 or 3 qualifications, or aged 24 and over and studying for GCSE Maths or English). Although colleges should also offer concessionary rates (or fee remissions) for asylum seekers under NASS, there is again the delay of 6 months before they can access this, and participants reported that colleges are not always clear about their eligibility for concessions. It should be noted that the concessionary rates can be too high considering the low-income support available to RBS.