A growing need for Sanctuary Scholarships: Lessons learned from the University of Bristol

On 8 June 2016, the University of Bristol announced the launch of the 'Sanctuary Scholarship scheme', which provides access to higher education for forced migrants facing major barriers to accessing education. In doing so, Bristol joined a cohort of likeminded universities seeking to provide space and sanctuary for those forced to flee their countries of origin. At present, for example, there are approximately 40 universities in the UK offering scholarships to forced migrants.

Stella Ogunlade, Sanctuary Scholarship rep

Stella Ogunlade, Sanctuary Scholarship rep and undergraduate student, presenting at a conference on the importance of sanctuary scholarships

This seemingly noble position is a necessary one as there are many obstacles facing forced migrants who wish to pursue university education – the most significant of which is that student loans are not available to asylum seekers claiming refugee status, refused asylum seekers, or those with discretionary leave to remain in the UK. As the majority of these people are also prohibited from working, university fees remove any possibility of them accessing higher education.

For refugees (who are able to access student loans) a number of other barriers apply, including:

  • the lack of evidence of former qualifications;
  • language issues;
  • and difficulties in transferring qualifying qualifications

These obstacles are also faced by other forced migrants. As a result of these difficulties, many refugee and asylum-seeking students will be asked to complete a foundation year before undertaking their undergraduate degree to improve their language capabilities and skills set.

Yet despite the fact that foundation year fees are over GBP £16000, there is no government funding available for foundation year students. Though refugees can access government funding for their main degree, the need to complete a foundation year represents a further institutional and economic barrier preventing forced migrants from accessing university.

For many forced migrant students, education is a form of emancipation. Aside from the trauma of being forced to flee their countries of origin, many forced migrants are re-traumatised by the bureaucracy and inhumanity of the UK's asylum system. Upon reaching the UK, for example, asylum seekers are prohibited from working and provided with approximately £5 per day to cater for all food, travel, clothing, and other essential costs. Many individuals will be separated from their families, unable to speak English, and threatened with the constant fear of detention or even worse; refusal and deportation. As a result, many individuals report feelings of hopelessness, frustration and abandon. Providing access to education is a means of investing in these students, increasing integration, and ensuring they flourish in reaching their full potential. Education leads to positive outcomes for the individual, their families, and wider society.

Establishing Sanctuary Scholarships

The University of Bristol has attempted to ameliorate some of the difficulties faced by forced migrants by establishing the University of Bristol Sanctuary Scholarship Scheme. Since September 2016, Bristol has welcomed 18 students at foundation, undergraduate, masters, and PhD level. The scholarship offered by Bristol is one of the most open schemes available and offers funding towards living costs and tuition fees, taking into account any government financial support which might be available. Those entitled to apply for a Sanctuary Scholarship include asylum seekers, refugees, those granted humanitarian protection or limited leave to remain, and the dependents of any of these status groups in recognition that they are also from asylum seeking backgrounds.

The success of the Bristol scheme is boundless, with students entering a variety of disciplines, including arts, biomedical sciences, engineering, health, social sciences, and law. Our students also come from a diverse range of countries, such as Pakistan, Iraq, Sudan, Nigeria, Syria, India, and Iran, the majority of whom have always had aspirations of studying at university level. Unsurprisingly then, data shows that Sanctuary Scholars often excel at university, gaining high grades in their assessments.

At Bristol we have had a number of success stories, including the progression of a foundation year student onto an undergraduate course in Pharmacology, including a year in industry, and the progression of a Masters student onto a PhD programme. This student also managed to win a studentship, and has said:

'I will be forever grateful to the University of Bristol for their noble and generous Sanctuary Scholarship. It is thanks to this Scholarship that I have been able to undertake a Master's degree in the Faculty of Engineering. I have since been awarded a PhD studentship at the University. This would not have been possible without the Sanctuary Scholarship during my Master's degree. I really thank the Scholarship team for believing in me.'

What next?

For the remaining sanctuary scholars continuing their studies, the future is bright. A future that would not be possible without the institutional and managerial support of the University of Bristol. The Sanctuary Scholarship Working Group – responsible for establishing the scheme – is diverse, made up of staff from finance, academia, admissions, fundraising, and widening participation. Though these staff come from a variety of disciplines, all members are united in a common cause – removing barriers to higher education for those most in need – a privilege that is ever more apparent each year when we receive applications from hundreds of gifted and eager students who are unable to pursue their education due to circumstances beyond their control.

If you would like more information on the University of Bristol Sanctuary Scholarship Scheme, please visit the University of Bristol website or watch this short scholarship video, where you can find out information on ways to donate and support the future of the scheme.


Dr Katie Bales is a lecturer in law at the University of Bristol and founding member of the Sanctuary Scholarship Working Group. Her research interests centre on forced migration, detention, precarious forms of work and access to welfare benefits.


'Measuring success?' – This blog series draws from the ACU's experience in scholarship design, administration, and analysis, and our connections in the sector, to explore the outcomes of international scholarship schemes for higher education. Find out more

If you are interested in contributing to the series, please email press@acu.ac.uk

Last modified on 07/02/2018
Tags: students, impact, 'Measuring success?' blog series, scholarships