More than 5,000 asylum seekers live in London. They can be caught up in a legal limbo for years. Without access to work or healthcare, they often live under precarious circumstances. Those who dare to dream about studying in the UK find financial and bureaucratic obstacles crushing their ambitions.
Cue Birkbeck, University of London, which offers 20 sanctuary scholarships each year to forced migrants such as asylum seekers, refugees or trafficking victims. It's called the Compass Project.
The project was brought to life in 2016 by Dr Leslie Topp, an academic in the Department of History of Art at Birkbeck. Dr Topp took issue with the fact that asylum seekers are charged international student fees while having no access to student finance: "They were completely blocked from studying at university," she tells us.
A natural fit
Almost all universities in the UK offer sanctuary scholarships for refugees and asylum seekers, but they are only open to students who have A-levels or an equivalent qualification. However, many forced migrants arrive in the UK as adults, and under difficult circumstances, having broken off education in their home countries. Some have simply lost the paperwork to show their qualifications.
This is where Birkbeck's key strength comes in. The entire university is tailored towards mature students, offering courses to those without traditional educational backgrounds.
"We are very much accustomed to reaching out and admitting people to our courses who don't meet the usual path," says Dr Topp. "So it just seemed like a natural fit for Birkbeck to address the need of this group of people that I assumed was quite large."
How it works
Each academic year, Birkbeck waives the equivalent of one year's full-time tuition fees for up to 20 asylum seekers who manage to secure a place on one of the university's courses — at any academic level. In addition, students can apply for bursaries to cover travel, material and childcare costs. These costs are funded by private and corporate donations.
Rather than a full-blown degree, Birkbeck concentrates on offering asylum seekers a pathway into higher education that will allow them access to other UK universities.
The first cohort of 20 students started in 2017, and the programme's success speaks for itself. After completing their scholarships, a number of students have already received offers from universities across the UK.
"The scholarship gave me an opportunity to build back my broken life and [...] for my voice to be heard," says Janahan Sivanathan, who was in the first cohort of the programme in 2017. He went on to study law full-time at Birkbeck, having gained refugee status in 2018, and he has since secured placements with several immigration solicitors and charities.
Lives hanging by a thread
Students on the Compass Project have come to the UK from conflict regions such as Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Russia, and Sri Lanka. Some have been forced to migrate, others have fled torture and prosecution in their home countries.
Once in the UK, current law bars immigrants from working until their status is regularised. This can take several years and involve expensive legal challenges to the Home Office. Many refugees are pushed into destitution or detention.
"This hostile environment is designed to wear you down so that you lose hope and give up," says Michael Darko, a Compass Project alumni who was detained for 30 months as part of his ongoing battle to be granted asylum.
The immigration limbo can take a huge mental toll on asylum seekers. "I did not often see myself as a human being that deserves these things [the chance to work or study] because of my experiences,' Michael says.
"For the first time I can remember, someone wanted me"
Those who set up the Compass Project recognised the vulnerable position asylum seekers find themselves in. They responded by making outreach and student support a central pillar. A full-time post is dedicated to working with communities to raise awareness of the programme, as well as organising workshops and events designed to inform and support students from the very beginning.
"There is a lot of student support involved," says Dr Topp, "because these are students whose lives are hanging by a thread. Their housing situation and dealing with the Home Office all the time is terrible for mental health, especially when you are trying to study."
Going the extra mile on outreach and support paid off. Janahan was made aware of the programme during therapy for PTSD, and Michael heard about it at a charity for whom he was volunteering. Both were initially doubtful about applying, simply because they could not imagine being given an opportunity like that.
"I tried applying to different colleges and universities, but I was turned down for not having status as well as English qualifications. However, Birkbeck recognised my potential and gave me an alternative entry," Janahan says.
Michael stresses that the support and trust he received from the Compass Project team and the wider academic network has helped him to believe in himself again: "For the first time I can remember, someone wanted me," he says.
A brighter future
Such has been the success of the Compass Project that it received a Guardian University Award in 2018. In 2019, 80 people applied for the 20 available slots — "a really, really strong field," says Dr Topp. Most applicants live in London, but asylum seekers from all over the country apply. "We offer something unique that they just can't find where they are living," explains Dr Topp.
With the programme entering its third year, Dr Topp sees the project on robust feet and set to continue at similar scale in the future. This year, two of the 20 places will be funded for an entire Master's degree. However, the number of scholarships is not going to expand in the near future unless "someone very generous comes along" to fund additional staff and resources.
The success of the Compass Project shows how immigrants can unlock their full potential to the benefit of our society — if they only get the chance to do so. As the UK is gearing up to close its doors further to immigrants from near and far, the Compass Project and other sanctuary scholarships shine a light on the fact that there is another way.
If you are interested in applying to the Compass Project, see here for more information and to get in touch.