For forced migrants, access to higher education can be key to rebuilding, this researcher says


When Rebecca Murray worked with asylum-seeking teenagers earlier in her career, she was surprised to learn what mattered most to them: Amid all their struggles, their top priority was overcoming the barriers they faced when trying to access higher education. As she went on to lobby for universities to create more opportunities for refugees and asylum-seekers and launch the Article 26 project, an initiative to promote the right to access higher education, she saw that part of the problem was a lack of data and research about forced migration and higher education—and she decided that she could do something about it.

Murray recently completed a Ph.D. at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, investigating the role of higher education in helping refugees and asylum-seekers rebuild their lives and futures. Science Careers spoke with Murray, who today is an associate  at the University of Exeter and an honorary fellow of the University of Winchester, about the challenges that forced migrant academics face and what their colleagues can do to help. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: What challenges do forced migrants face in accessing university studies and academic jobs?

A: One primary barrier to accessing higher education is a lack of economic capital—not having the funding or finances to cover the cost of study. That is not just tuition fees and the costs of buying books and other course material, but also living expenses. Most of the time asylum-seekers are allowed to study, but they often do not have the right to work to support themselves.

For the group of asylum-seeking teenagers that I originally worked with, their struggles to enter university essentially came down to their being categorized by universities as international instead of home students, which increased their tuition fees. They were also ineligible for government funding to help meet the costs of higher education.

More broadly, fully resolving your immigration status with the government authorities can take a very long time—I know people who’ve been waiting 15 years in the U.K.—and it can be a very challenging and frustrating process. The precariousness of the situation and the uncertainty about the future can have an impact on asylum-seekers’ well-being and mental and emotional health.

For those who have been granted asylum and are looking for a job in academia, they may find that their existing qualifications and work experience sometimes can be called into question. They might have difficulty demonstrating their credentials because they were not able to take their documents with them as they fled, or their university doesn’t exist anymore and they can’t get hold of the transcripts. Language can also be a big barrier. Finally, they need to learn to navigate a new academic system with a foreign culture and different pedagogical approaches.

Often, displaced academics and students are trying to navigate all these challenges at the same time, and it absolutely blows my mind that people manage to do this at all.

Q: Do you have any success stories to share?

A: One Syrian biologist I interviewed for my research had come to the U.K. with an international student visa to undertake her Ph.D. Two years in, her family fled Syria. Realizing that she had no home anymore and that her U.K. visa would expire at the end of her studies, she decided to seek asylum.

Around that time, her funding—which had been provided by her home country up to that point—was also interrupted by the Syrian conflict. Accepting accommodation and help with living costs from the British Home Office was not a viable option for her because it likely would have required her to relocate, which would have jeopardized her Ph.D. But with the help of her academic supervisor, this student was able to negotiate university support so she could stay and complete her graduate studies. She was also fortunate to be awarded refugee status relatively quickly.

By many people’s standards, this is a success story. But I would marry that with the difficulty of her experience and the reality of her feelings. The asylum-seeking process caused a huge disruption to her studies and her Ph.D. was delayed by a year. The whole experience was also traumatic, as she was concerned about when she would get her new immigration status so she would be able to travel and see her family and friends again. And even though she had already successfully overcome the challenges of adapting to a new way of living and studying, now she was worried about having to rebuild her entire life and career in the U.K. She feared prejudice in the higher education sector based on her ethnicity and refugee status.

There are many talented students like her among asylum-seekers and refugees, and I worry about the people who don’t have that level of resilience and who need extra support. You should not have to struggle that much to obtain your degree or pursue your career.

Q: What support is available for forced migrants within academia?

A: Today, often there are excellent resources within universities to support displaced students and academics. For example, in the U.K. more than 70 universities offer targeted support to students who are refugees or in the process of seeking asylum.

But something that has come up again and again in my research is a lack of visibility of such support schemes and initiatives, alongside a lack of visibility of the specific needs of forced migrants within higher education. Much greater communication is needed within universities to raise awareness of the support available so that students and academics who need it can access it.

There also is a broad lack of understanding as to why such support schemes are needed in the first place and what they are trying to achieve. A small but significant part of the scientific community seems to view the academic system as already meritocratic with no need for specific provisions for this group.

Q: What advice do you have for displaced students and academics about how to overcome those barriers?

A: What’s really key to access higher education or reenter academia is finding allies and building a new network. Try to make contacts within academia and find people who are interested in your area of research, understand your needs, or can offer you support. Many academics—if they know there is an issue or think there is something they can do for people in this situation—will gladly offer their help. They want to see people do well. They also don’t want to miss out on a great student or a great Ph.D. research project.

Q: How can their academic colleagues help?

A: Find out if there are any ongoing initiatives at your university that support refugees or asylum-seekers and see how you can contribute. But above all, it’s about being attuned to who your colleagues are. Is there anyone who might not formally be an asylum-seeker or a refugee but has potentially been displaced? Are there any students in your program who may struggle with their immigration status? Don’t be rude or overly inquisitive, but raise your awareness with respect to whom you are working with or teaching and any challenges they might face. Help could include getting people volunteer experience, letting them shadow you, guiding them through the process of applying for an academic position, and explaining unwritten cultural norms.

Importantly, it’s not just what you can do for them but also what they can do for you. This isn’t a one-sided relationship. These are students and academics who have come with a lot of valuable skills, knowledge, and experience, and it is up to academia to tap into this new talent.

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