World Refugee Day: a look at how UK universities are welcoming refugees and asylum seekers

20 June 2017

By Emma Williams, Chief Executive, Student Action For Refugees (STAR)

Today, on World Refugee Day, we celebrate the many UK universities working hard to aid the integration of refugees and asylum seekers by increasing access to higher education in the UK. 

People who have sought refugee protection in the UK do not have equal access to university; most are classed as international students meaning they are charged higher fees, are not eligible for student finance and do not have the right to work to earn money to pay for the fees and living costs.

In the past five years over 40 universities have stepped in to address this challenge by creating special scholarships and fee waivers for asylum seekers and refugees. The full list of the scholarships can be found here. Some noteworthy examples are:

  • Birkbeck, University of London will provide 20 asylum seekers with a scholarship to study a university-level programme through its Compass Project Fund. This programme of short study courses intends to act as a springboard to higher education by equipping scholars with proven experience and transcripts from a UK institution.

  • University of Sussex provides two scholarships including a full fee waiver and an £11,500 cash award for asylum seekers or those with discretionary leave to remain. Fifty English language scholarships for Syrian refugees are also available.

  • University of Bristol established the Sanctuary Scholarship to enhance opportunities for those from forced migration backgrounds by covering fees, living costs of up to £14,296 and English language tuition. Partial scholarships for those who can already access student finance are also available.  

  • University College London provides two undergraduate scholarships for those with limited/discretionary leave or other temporary immigration status and who are unable to access student finance funding. This scholarship provides full tuition fees and maintenance stipends of £10,750.

Many of these scholarships have been created in response to and with support from student activists through the Equal Access campaign. Equal Access was established in 2012 by Student Action for Refugees (STAR) and the National Union of Students (NUS). The campaign works in collaboration with expert agencies including Refugee Council, CORAM, Helena Kennedy Foundation's Article 26 Project and Refugee Support Network.

The Equal Access campaign asks universities to:

  1. Classify all those seeking asylum as home students for fee purposes.

  2. Offer at least 10 scholarships that cover study and maintenance costs for people who have come to the UK seeking refugee protection.

  3. Publicise their Equal Access policies so that potential students can easily apply.

As well as empowering students to raise the issue access for refugees with their own institutions, Equal Access has expert staff able who provide in-depth advice to university staff on how to develop their scholarship programmes. Most importantly the campaign is connected with refugee communities across the UK and able to link potential students with the universities able to provide scholarships and advise universities on the needs of these students.


In addition to the generous and ground breaking scholarship programmes created by the universities, the Equal Access campaign is working to change the government policies which create this inequality. Earlier this year the team succeeded in securing a huge change for Syrian refugees who have arrive in the UK under the Syrian Vulnerable Person's Relocation Scheme. By tabling an amendment to the Higher Education and Research Bill these resettled Syrian refugees were granted refugee status giving them immediate access to student finance on arrival in the UK.  

If you'd like to create Equal Access at your university, get in touch with Student Action for Refugees. During Refugee Week let us join in our diversity to build a shared future, fulfilling the potential of all our students.  

Our team


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