Campaigners are putting pressure on the University of Bristol to provide greater support for refugees and asylum seekers.
Under current rules, refugees pay the same fees as home or EU students. But asylum seekers awaiting refugee status pay international fees which can range from £15,600 a year up to £35,000 a year.
After fleeing from Iran, Jalal arrived in the UK six years ago looking for a life free of persecution. In Iran he had received a University degree in electronic engineering and worked as an engineer for a telecommunications company for several years.
Since arriving in the UK as an asylum seeker, Jalal had hoped to study for another degree in electronic engineering at the University of Bristol, in order to gain a qualification that would be accepted in the UK.
“I love Bristol. I’ve been here for four years and three months so my whole life is here. I’d love to stay in Bristol and study here,” he says.
However, as Jalal has not yet been granted refugee status and is still classed as an asylum seeker, he is treated as an international student and must pay international fees.
Jalal says it is impossible for him to afford the fees because, as an asylum seeker, he is not allowed to work and is forced to rely on state support – a weekly allowance of just £36 a week.
Jalal explains: “The main challenge is just financial. It’s definitely not possible for me to pay lots of money for tuition or for accommodation.
“I tried to go to University and continue studying electronic engineering but unfortunately I couldn’t find any way to do it.”
The university says it has created five fully-funded scholarships for refugees in Bristol and adds that it is working on creating a formal application for asylum seekers which would be decided on a discretionary basis.
But campaigners want more to be done to help Bristol live up to its City of Sanctuary status.
At the forefront of the equal access campaign are Bristol STAR, the University of Bristol branch of the national network Student Action for Refugees.
Anna Lewis, of STAR, says: “STAR believe the University of Bristol should use their discretion to classify all asylum seekers as home students, to reduce the financial barriers between them and further education.”
Anna claims the current policy “does not change the problem of enabling capable students who are seeking asylum to access university, as they usually do not consider it an option in their poor financial situation. A more complete change of policy would make the system much easier to navigate.”
Bristol STAR hopes that the University of Bristol will follow in the footsteps of other universities who have already adopted equal access.
Members of the Migration Research Group at the University of Bristol also stress that the university must focus on the quality of support they provide for asylum seekers and refugees as well as providing places for these students.
The group have been working with the university to sort out the details of the scholarship scheme. Chris Bertram, a professor in philosophy at University of Bristol, and a member of the Migration Research Group, says: “It is quite easy for Universities to make headline announcements on access that sound quite good but they also need to commit to making it possible for refugees and asylum seekers to survive and flourish during a degree course by providing adequate resources and support.”
He suggests that there are a number of different things that a university could do to provide such support “from having a special support office, to having mentoring schemes, to making sure students and their tutors (& hall wardens) are fully informed about support for learning and psychological support.”
As the refugee crisis deepens in Europe, it is important to consider how Bristol will integrate refugees arriving in the city as well as those already here, campaigners argue.
Offering university education to refugees and asylum seekers is an important step in this process. The University of Bristol’s initial plans to introduce scholarships for refugees are a promising start.
However for Bristol to be truly considered a City of Sanctuary, campaigners argue the University must commit to more comprehensive support for refugees and asylum seekers .
For refugees and asylum seekers in Bristol like Jalal, the chance to study at university gives them fresh hope and the opportunity to improve their circumstances and contribute to the city.
Describing his motivations to attend university after arriving in Bristol, Jalal explains: “When you come here in that situation that I had, you don’t think about anything else.
“But then after you stay for a while you think, alright my life is going on. So I said ‘I just have to do something positive’.”
A spokesman for the University of Bristol said: “We’re working very closely with our city partners to ensure that refugees arriving in Bristol are able to live comfortably and integrate successfully into society.
“As part of this commitment, we’ve introduced five fully funded studentships for refugees. Refugees are already eligible for Home/EU tuition fees and we charge Home/EU fees to asylum seekers on a discretionary basis. We are currently working on the formal application process and eligibility criteria and hope to be able to give an update soon.”