CEO Blog: Does BIS have a role in the refugee crisis?

14 Sep 2015

Social media campaigns to raise funds, offers to host families, volunteers using their own transport to drive refugees from border crossings - all these and countless other acts have proved that ordinary people have been well ahead of politicians in their response to the refugee crisis. The Prime Minister has committed the UK to take in 20,000 Syrian refugees – an announcement described by the Archbishop of Canterbury as a 'slim response'. It is perhaps regrettable that funding for the expanded refugee scheme will be drawn from the international development budget. However, the Prime Minister's more ambitious response and visit to refugee camps in Lebanon is a welcome start.

Questions now need to be asked about the role of other departments including the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills in supporting the Prime Minister’s initiative. The Supreme Court has recently decided that students who have studied in UK secondary schools and have UK qualifications, but whose residency status remains undecided, are being unfairly treated because they are currently denied access to the student loan system. The response from BIS to the judgement is still awaited but the Supreme Court's decision should improve access to university for those who are qualified and have been resident in the UK but are waiting for decisions (sometimes for years) about their right to remain.

Like many members of the public the University of East London provided an early response to the refugee crisis by committing to offer ten postgraduate scholarships to Syrians given humanitarian protection status by the UK government after fleeing the civil war in their homeland. The scholarships will cover all academic fees. In making the announcement, UEL’s Vice-Chancellor Professor John Joughin said, “No-one could fail to be moved by the plight of these desperate people. This University is passionate about migration issues so this crisis goes to the very core of who we are”.

Home to the Refugee Council Archive (one of the largest collection of materials about the study of forced migration and refugees), the University conducts internationally acclaimed research at its Centre of Research on Migration, Refugees and Belonging. UEL is clearly well-placed  to provide stability and the chance for refugees to pursue their academic ambitions in a safe, tolerant and supportive environment.
In fact, universities have long and proud histories of supporting academics fleeing from repressive regimes. Since 1933, CARA has quietly changed the lives of countless at-risk and persecuted academics. Universities often have well-developed policies relating to student refugees but may be faced with difficult decisions in part, but not wholly, linked to status. Rights to access loan funding and support are complex and decisions have to be made about what fee to charge (international or UK). In addition, students with refugee backgrounds may have complex personal needs as a result of experiences in their home countries and on their journeys to safer lands.

It is clear that at least some, and possibly many, refugees currently entering Europe have professional backgrounds and qualifications. Others have expressed the desire to study in their own right or cite the future education of their children as one of the motivations for fleeing from countries where educational systems have collapsed or been subject to restrictive ideologies.

This is an opportunity for BIS as well as the Department for Education. BIS could set up a task group with universities to explore what more could be done. While this could focus on the 20,000 refugees who will enter the country under the government's expanded scheme, there are strong arguments that such a taskforce should address wider issues of principle and practice. A similar scheme, coordinating support for international students in the UK from countries that descended into crisis, featured in the last Government’s international education strategy.

It should not take the Supreme Court to provide the legal basis for a more sensible approach to student loans for refugees and asylum-seekers. For their part, universities are understandably anxious that the exposure of BIS as an unprotected department in the forthcoming spending review will lead to further cuts. They are right to be concerned, but this should not stop universities and BIS working together to explore how they can match the humanitarian response of the public.

Morally joint work between BIS and universities would be the right thing to do and would provide the basis for the Treasury to further consider the funding available to support refugees entering the UK. In the long-term securing an education ‘offer’ would be in the UK's long-term interests: it has the potential to capitalise on the skills and professional qualifications of refugees and would provide new hope to children and young people whose lives have been blighted by war and repression. Surely now is the time for BIS Ministers to also pick up the challenge.