The Ukraine response should be replicated for all refugee academics

Universities' response to the Russian invasion needs to be embedded in wider policy and practice, says Linda Morrice

August 13, 2022
Refugees in the cold
Source: iStock

As it stands, more than 5.6 million Ukrainians have fled their country since the onset of the Russian invasion in February, making it the biggest and fastest exodus of refugees globally since the Second World War. But this is not the only reason that we have seen a much more energetic humanitarian response than we have seen to other recent refugee crises.

First, for the first time in more than 70 years, European nations are witnessing the crisis unfold on their doorsteps, shaking their deeply embedded assumption that war, human rights abuses and ensuing tragedies are confined to more distant territories in the Global South.

Second, people fleeing Ukraine are the archetypal refugees imagined by European nations when, in the wake of the Holocaust and in the face of an expansionist Soviet Union, they pushed for the establishment of the Refugee Convention in 1951. That is, they are white, anti-communist and straightforwardly fleeing conflict.

In contrast, refugees in the Global South are from poor countries, often ex-colonies, which inevitably blurs boundaries between so-called economic and persecution drivers. They are often fleeing complex drivers, including environment degradation, economic precarity and natural disasters, amplifying the difficulties they face in claiming protection and accessing rights.

The UK and the European Union have invested in a formidable architecture of deterrence to prevent these refugees entering the Global North, which has culminated recently in UK government plans to deport asylum seekers arriving at its borders to Rwanda.

In stark contrast, Ukrainian nationals were immediately granted free movement across EU borders and rights to work and to study in EU countries. The two UK government schemes for Ukrainians enable an uncapped number of refugees to come to the UK. The scale of these schemes is far bigger than existing resettlement schemes and the UK response to the refugee crises in Syria and Afghanistan combined.

Although we are still in the early days of the crisis, we are also seeing a commitment and solidarity-based response when it comes specifically to ensuring access to higher education. University study provides long-term purpose during periods of uncertainty and disruption. It supports integration and language acquisition, and it provides certification and the skills needed to navigate new circumstances. Crucially, it provides hope and enables refugees to plan for a future.

However, there are multiple, well-documented barriers to refugees’ access to higher and tertiary education. The biggest of these is their unsettled immigration status, which denies them access to student finance. The UK has removed this barrier, granting Ukrainian nationals (but not the estimated 76,000 international students from Africa and India who were studying in Ukraine before the war) access to student loans and the right to study on the same basis as domestic students. This has upended previous expectations of refugee entitlement to higher education.

The brutal war in Ukraine represents a pivotal moment in the way in which Europe understands and responds to refugee crises. The opening of borders and recognition of the importance of higher education access for refugees is unprecedented and demonstrates how the impossible becomes possible when there is the political will and the public support.

The needs of refugees are on universities’ institutional agendas in a way never seen before, as attested to, for example, by the more than 70 higher education institutions offering scholarships to people seeking sanctuary. But for this to be a transformative moment in refugee education, the response needs to be embedded in policy and practice. The discretionary practices initiated by higher education institutions for Ukrainian refugees needing to be translated into tangible universal rights to study, supported by access to mainstream funding and support.

Crucially, we also need to galvanise the momentum and solidarity for Ukrainian refugees to advocate for the equal moral value of all refugees. Regardless of the country from which they are fleeing, refugees deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and to have the opportunity to rebuild their lives – including through access to education.

Linda Morrice is reader in education and migration at the University of Sussex.

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