The University of Edinburgh will grant five full scholarships to undergraduate asylum seekers, it announced last week, in a development following months of deliberation by university officials and pressure by student activists.
The undergraduate scholarships, eligible for applicants entering in 2016, are accompanied by four scholarships at the post-graduate level. Three will go to refugees fleeing Syria, with the fourth awarded to an asylum seeker. The university also formally confirmed its decision to waive international fees for all asylum seekers, a measure first proposed back in October.
The change would eliminate the current £16,000 minimum tuition threshold for international students, though home student fees of £1800 would still apply. The scholarships were announced as part of a broader package of financial support from the University for those fleeing war-torn areas, including £100,000 for “other forms of assistance”, such as English language support for new arrivals.
In a statement, Vice Chancellor Sir Timothy O’Shea declared the measures “one of the best packages of support for asylum seekers in the UK.” He continued: “We want to support the aspiration of asylum seekers to continue their education at the University of Edinburgh. Asylum seekers are routinely charged international fees and are not permitted to apply for any student loans, effectively placing a University education beyond their financial means.”
Alan McKay, deputy Vice Principal International and Director of the International Office, said the decision was rooted in a desire to improve conditions for incoming asylum seekers. “It’s about access,” he told The Student.
“It’s giving people who are well qualified students, undergraduate, post graduate, the access to an education that otherwise would be denied to them because of the current funding situation”, he added. “If you’re [having to pay] overseas rates, you probably won’t have the necessary financial funds to go and support yourself. So in terms of access and opportunity, that’s really key.”
The announcement comes at the culmination of a sustained campaign by student activists calling for greater action by the University. In recent months, Equal Access Edinburgh, an activist organisation dedicated to expanding university opportunities, has organised rallies and petitions calling for more funds to be made available.
In a statement reacting to the decision, Equal Access called the announcement “an excellent step towards the demands of the Equal Access Campaign.”
“This is certainly in line with what we’ve been pushing for and it’s very welcome,” Nuri Syed Corser, a representative of Equal Access, told The Student.
Urte Macikene, Vice President Services of Edinburgh University Students Association credited the decision to grassroots pressure, telling The Student: “The student campaigning around this issue had really raised its profile and it’s definitely put pressure on senior officials, and that’s been fantastic.” Macikene has been lobbying at the university and Scottish parliamentary level to change bursary regulations to better benefit asylum seekers.
Her remarks were echoed by McKay, who praised the “contribution student activists made toward making this happen.”
Activists beyond the university also lauded the initiative. Catherine Gladwell, founder and director of the Refugee Support Network, a foundation aimed at improving educational opportunities for refugees UK-wide, called it “a really significant offer of support.” “Particularly with Syrian refugees and asylum seekers, access to university is one of the most important things for them,” she told The Student.
“The level of education amongst Syrian young people before the war broke out was incredibly high, and a very high proportion of young people were accessing university in Syria. So as a result of the conflict, you’ve now got enormous numbers of young people thinking ‘I was about to start university; I was about to continue my studies—and now that will be ruined’.”
Gladwell said that she had seen first-hand the desire for education amongst young refugees. “We were recently in the Calais refugee camps speaking to refugee students there, and we heard again and again ‘I wish I could go to university but I never had the money to do it’,” she recalled.
“Even when some people arrive in the UK, the finances are still the most enormous barrier for them, so anything the universities can do to help them afford an education is increasing their chances of actually successfully integrating into the UK.”
McKay said that the university initiative would be trialed in the coming year and then adjusted in autumn “based on demand”. In the meantime, he and Macikene both pledged to continue lobbying the Scottish Parliament to extend SAAS funding and bursary support at the government level.
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