Covid-19 can provide the opportunity for universities to remove barriers to education, through distance learning. This has already begun to benefit some pre-sessional learning programmes that have moved to online teaching; furthermore, it can provide the opportunity for greater inclusion in the future. Rather than neglect widening participation goals and action during this crisis, this time could be used as an opportunity to create a culture of welcome, inclusion and belonging for students in the higher education sector. As universities evolve in response to the challenges presented by Covid-19, students should be at the forefront of this change.
In July 2020, Natalie Cleverly, an intern from The University of Exeter, began researching the effects of the pandemic on universities provisions for sanctuary scholars. From this research, we have identified several recommendations and examples of best practice by universities which are adapting their normal support services to better support students during the pandemic.
We hope to build on these examples, and use them as a good starting point for further discussions about how to ensure sanctuary scholars are supported during this time. If you have any examples you would like to share please get in touch.
What can a student from a sanctuary seeking background expect from their university?
The government has asked universities to ensure that the following support is in place for vulnerable students (including those from a sanctuary seeking background):
- Guaranteed appropriate accommodation. If it is safe and feasible vulnerable students should have the option to remain in their accommodation. If students are required to move, universities and colleges should make sure that those students can get the practical assistance that they need.
- Continued access to established financial support, and to immediate hardship funding if necessary. Where universities and colleges are likely to be impacted by staff shortages or office closures this may need to be paid to vulnerable students in advance.
- Practical support to access food, medical and cleaning supplies.
- Ongoing access to a first point of contact for student queries and concerns and for proactive wellbeing support.
- Ongoing access to student support networks, mental health support and academic support where required.
Information from the Office for Students – June 2020
For sanctuary seeking students, adequate IT equipment and Wi-Fi/data provisions may be inaccessible. Universities typically provide access to IT equipment, and free on-campus Wi-fi. If classes are taught online in the future, students are likely to need their own computer, with a microphone and camera and high-quality internet connection. Many institutions have responded to this challenge by making emergency IT funds, or loan schemes, available to students, which have been utilised by some scholars. These provisions should also be extended to prospective students at risk of digital exclusion who will be attending university in the new academic year. Whilst some NGO’s and charities have offered some support in supplying these, universities should consider directly providing these for students as part of their widening access programmes to support students from a sanctuary seeking background.
The majority of universities have set up a hardship/emergency fund for students struggling financially at this time. Some Universities of Sanctuary directly contacted sanctuary scholars with information about the available funds. One university made refugee and asylum-seeking students a priority group for the funding, whilst another contacted sanctuary scholars about the hardship funds before the information was distributed to the rest of the student body. Whilst hardship/emergency funds have been made available to students in most universities, some funds are limited to “home students”. In addition, there is often a limit to the amount a student can claim for. This may therefore be an insufficient amount to enable students from a sanctuary seeking background to feel financially secure, especially in the long-term.
For cases where scholarship recipients are entitled to forms of ‘in kind’ support, such as campus vouchers for food or transport, some universities have been able to redirect funds into their bank accounts, enabling student choice in how it is spent and ensuring that they are not at a disadvantage during campus closures. However, universities should be mindful that paying funds directly into a bank account can jeopardised funding from elsewhere (such as benefits or asylum support), depending on their immigration status. It might be better to consider a long term long of equipment such as laptops.
Many Universities of Sanctuary have reached out to their sanctuary scholars throughout the pandemic, to keep in touch and to signpost them to other support services in the university if/when necessary. The most positive experience reported at universities, have been where the designated point of contact for sanctuary scholars had already formed relationships of trust with sanctuary scholars pre-Covid-19. In these cases, personally reaching out to individuals online has extended the pastoral support available during this period. This has included phone calls and socially distanced visits to students from a sanctuary seeking background, who were facing difficulties as a result of the isolation of lockdown. Keeping regular contact with these students proved to be helpful in supporting and stabilising students significantly, and strengthened relationships of care and trust, that hopefully will extend into the new term. This reasserts the importance of a consistent support network that students can personally reach out to, confide in and seek guidance from.
A positive response to these challenges can be seen at The University of Edinburgh, which plans to strengthen the community of sanctuary scholars in the new term, by offering regular group meetings, supported by the University chaplaincy. These will be open to any students who are from a sanctuary seeking background. The first session will be in Freshers Week and is proposed to be hosted online. This will allow attendees to choose whether to use their camera/microphone and names, providing an opportunity for anonymity. Following this, throughout the course of the term the University plans to host regular meetings based on themes which aim to support students, with topics ranging from personal finances, to work experience. This aims to create a supportive community during the transition into a new form of university experience, and to strengthen relationships between these students and supporting staff.
University Applicants and Pre-sessional English Programmes
The Covid-19 crisis has disrupted normal life in a number of ways, particularly for students in the admission process to attend university in September. One significant issue that universities have had to try to overcome has been the changes to the usually compulsory International English Language Testing System (IELTS) for students applying for university. For many universities, there have been alternative arrangements for students, such as online English language tests like Duolingo. Others have allowed a more flexible admission process for prospective students.
The University of Leicester is a positive example of a university which has used its resources to support their sanctuary students. For those who were undertaking their pre-sessional English language programme, weekly social engagement meetings were arranged via Zoom, in order to maintain friendships and reduce feelings of isolation during lockdown. Additionally, the provision of free emergency/temporary accommodation was provided for several of these students during the Covid-19 crisis. This example shows the positive action and impact that universities can have by utilising the resources available to them to support sanctuary seekers during an unstable and uncertain time.