Forcibly displaced learners

Forcibly displaced learners

On this International Migrants Day, I find myself reflecting on the problems faced by people who have been forcibly displaced from their home countries – such as refugees and asylum-seekers – and have had their education disrupted as a result. As a university lecturer, I passionately believe that everyone, including these forcibly displaced learners, should be able to find their place in education, a place where they can learn, belong, expand their imaginations and achieve their ambitions.

"I urge all universities to consider how they can reach out to forcibly displaced learners and recognise them as an asset that will enrich UK university life."

Statistics on migration make clear the incredible magnitude and increasing urgency of this issue. The UN estimates that in 2017 there were 258 million people in the world living outside their country of birth, an increase of almost 50% since 2000. Over a quarter of these people are classed as ‘of concern’, a definition that includes forcibly displaced people. Many of these individuals will have begun higher education but will struggle to continue it in their host country.

In the UK, universities’ fees and admissions requirements pose an enormous barrier to forcibly displaced learners, especially when they do not yet hold formal refugee status. Yet universities themselves benefit by receiving talented students from a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives. There have been efforts by some universities to offer scholarships to forcibly displaced students, but this is still only a drop in the ocean.

I travelled to Canada in 2017 and Kenya in 2018 on a Churchill Fellowship to seek out new approaches to including forcibly displaced learners within higher education. I believe UK universities should consider doing more in a number of areas.

Firstly, values. Many UK universities’ mission statements contain a commitment to social justice. They must remember this and show solidarity with displaced learners. On a practical level, by seeing other universities as collaborators they can learn from, rather than competitors for students, there is an opportunity to improve the offer to displaced learners. One such collaboration I learnt about on my travels is the Borderless Higher Education for Refugees project (BHER), a partnership between universities and NGOs in Canada and Kenya that provides teacher training programmes to refugees in host communities.

Secondly, scholarships, fees and support. UK universities should increase the number of funded places they offer to forcibly displaced students. Ongoing bespoke support should also be put in place to ensure that students not only ‘get in’ to university but also ‘stay in’. This is a challenge given that many universities are currently squeezed financially, but the example set by Kenya, where refugee students are increasingly being charged local fees, rather than higher international fees, is one that could be followed.

An outdoor learning space at a university in Nairobi, Kenya Download 'Forcibly displaced learners 3.jpg'

Thirdly, online courses. In Canada I saw the University of Ottawa collaborating with the American University of Beirut to offer refugee host communities in Lebanon online courses that were relevant to their local contexts, making higher education accessible to those who could not or did not want to travel overseas to study. This could be a cost-effective model for UK universities to follow, as much of the material could be adapted from resources that already exist on UK institutions’ online platforms.

A university’s true character can really be seen in how it treats those who have least. This International Migrants Day, I urge all universities to consider how they can reach out to forcibly displaced learners and recognise them as an asset that will enrich UK university life.


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.


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