What is the idea of the university? Perhaps the university should be the creator of knowledge, the repository of ideas, the temple of learning? These may or may not chime with your idea of the university, and if they do the aspirations doubtless seem in tension with the realities of the institutions which you have encountered. But have you ever thought about the idea of the university as a sanctuary? The use of ‘sanctuary’ here refers to a safe haven for people fleeing persecution, also known as asylum seekers and refugees. Could universities be places where asylum seekers and refugees are welcomed and supported, as part of a broader project of making the places where they find themselves living more welcoming? Is this part of your idea of the university? For two groups working in Sheffield and Bristol, that is just their vision. Here I report on their work.
Last December at the University of the West of England in Bristol, Dr Ibrahim Seaga Shaw launched the Refugee and Migrant Support Hub (RMS Hub). It began with a CARA (Council for Assisting Refugee Academics) funded pathfinder research project in 2008 on what the existing and required structures were for making the university more welcoming to refugee academics. Their report can be found here. The Hub, launched in response to this work, provides support for refugee and asylum seeking scholars (and potential scholars), research, training, and knowledge exchange. They liaise with faculties and departments across the university, providing a single point of access to facilitate academic and educational opportunities for scholars at risk and forced migrants who might be the scholars of tomorrow. Bursaries and fee waivers are part of the help on offer, as is clear advice on the transferability of qualifications obtained abroad. In June the Hub hosted a conference on ‘Education without Borders’ as part of Refugee Week. It is necessary for the Hub to reach out beyond the university and so part of its remit is to engage with community groups and NGOs who work with asylum seekers and refugees in order to attract attention to the opportunities on offer at UWE.
The Sheffield project was inspired by the RMS Hub and is really in the early stages of development. Earlier this year a small group of staff, students and City of Sanctuary activists got together to discuss the possibility of creating a University of Sanctuary associated with the City of Sanctuary project. In the proceeding months they have facilitated the University of Sheffield signing up to be a Sanctuary affiliated organisation. City of Sanctuary is a social movement which began in 2005 with the aim of making cities more welcoming to asylum seekers and refugees. In practical terms this involves starting projects, bringing people and organisations who are already doing work to help asylum seekers together, getting the local council to commit to the label ‘City of Sanctuary’ and endorsing its sentiments (a significant barrier for some cities gaining the Sanctuary badge), and encouraging businesses and other organisations in the city to pledge to do their bit. Such organisations might, it is proposed, include universities. Thus sprung the idea of Universities of Sanctuary.
The group in Sheffield contacted the university STAR (Student Action for Refugees) group and organised an open meeting for STAR reps and other interested parties. The initial meeting was small but over time word got around and volunteers started to get into contact with the initiators. In the following three months the group managed to get the University to sign up to be on the list of CARA affiliated organisations. Ideas being floated are bursaries for asylum seekers and refugees to study at the university, fee wavers for asylum seekers, moving to charging asylum seekers domestic fee rates as opposed to the international fees that many are currently subject to. Allowing asylum seekers and refugees to use university facilities such as the library free of charge is another possibility. Law students offering their skills through legal advice and research (such as country situation reports) has also been touted. Swansea University already has a Law and Asylum Group doing just this. Students and established academics acting as mentors, and increased prominence of the work of CARA in the institution are possible. The expansion of volunteering opportunities with refugee supporting organisations is another free activity. Finally, awareness raising amongst the staff and student body through special events, campaigns and training sessions would facilitate myth-busting on asylum related issues.
The sceptic in you is asking ‘but what about the money?’ In these cash strapped times, not to mention in the age of the neoliberal university, funding support for refugee and asylum seeking scholars might not be a top priority for British universities. The Bristol based Hub obtained funding from the Bristol Legacy Commission, match funded by the university, while the initial pathfinder project was funded through CARA. One idea suggested in Sheffield is getting the alumni association to propose that members fund or part fund a refugee scholarship in a particular department. Collaboration with public and private organisations for vocational courses is also a possibility.
In Sheffield the idea has taken off so quickly because senior staff in the university are keen to make it work on a personal ethical level. But there are benefits to be had for the university which make the idea ‘sell-able’ if the ethnical commitment isn’t necessarily there. For example, the RMS Hub business plan 2009-12 states that
“The Hub will be an answer to demand of professional development and training from an increasingly culturally diverse local population. It will also help UWE: (1) boost student recruitment, especially mature students, (2) fulfil equality and diversity commitments to its staff and student body, and (3) enhance widening participation and promote human rights across the University and its federation”.
Speaking the language of ‘corporate social responsibility’, ‘community relations’, ‘equalities’, ‘widening participation’, ‘employability’ and ‘CV building’ might prove vital in getting official university endorsement of the project. To some extent, then, the track to follow depends on which priorities the university values most –not all have aspirations to widen participation.
Much of the potential of creating a University Sanctuary lies not in simply funding places on courses but in a whole range of activities which make the university more welcoming and raise awareness of asylum issues amongst the university community. These things don’t need to cost anything. With the badge saying ‘we are a University of Sanctuary’ comes a challenge to staff and students alike to be creative with the concept, to see where the idea takes them. There are clearly challenges and barriers to this aspiration becoming a reality. The neoliberalisation of higher education, funding cuts, legal constraints on what asylum seekers can do, the fear that with high level endorsement what is a grass roots movement at heart could be co-opted by senior university managers… But there’s something in it isn’t there? The seed of an idea that could just take off. It’s up to us to help that seed to grow.
Council for Assisting Refugee Academics: www.academic-refugees.org
Scholars at Risk: scholarsatrisk.nyu.edu
Student Action for Refugees: www.star-network.org.uk
The Refugee Council: www.refugeecouncil.org.uk
Refugee Action: www.refugee-action.org.uk