Brilliant students holding hard-won scholarships have been unable to take up places at university, while one exceptional undergraduate was almost kicked off his course. Why? Because they are asylum seekers.
This unhappy scenario is one that academics might expect to find in Donald Trump’s America or in those European countries where anti-immigrant sentiment has swept right-wing populist parties to power, such as Hungary or Italy. In fact, these stories relate to the UK.
Asylum seekers have always faced challenges to enter UK higher education. They cannot access student finance unless they are granted refugee status and they often need to take foundation courses to improve their language skills, for which there is no state funding. They can struggle to have their entry qualifications recognised, while their studies have often been interrupted by their movement to a new country. In short, the educational environment for refugee students has long been hostile.
On top of this, any students considered to be illegally residing in England and Wales can be removed from their courses. Moreover, any university found to be admitting people without the “right to study” faces the removal of its licence to sponsor the visas of international students. In the case of our institution, the University of Bristol, that would mean the loss of almost £70 million a year in income: about 28 per cent of its total income from student fees.
As a result, the onus is on universities to perform right-to-study checks on prospective and current students. If a student’s asylum appeal has failed and they are waiting to submit a fresh claim, they can find themselves suspended or removed from their course.
This is making it far harder for outstanding candidates to take up the support offered by the more than 40 scholarship schemes for refugee students set up by UK universities. These include Bristol’s Sanctuary programme, which has provided more than 30 scholarships since 2016.
Things have become far worse since January, thanks to the introduction of new right-to-study rules – and, in particular, the introduction of the concept of “immigration bail”. Another worrying manifestation of the government’s “hostile environment” for immigrants, this new immigration status allows for new restrictions on asylum seekers’ work or studies. Any breach of these conditions can result in criminal proceedings, a fine and up to six months in prison.
We are concerned by the vague language in the Home Office's guidance about how restrictions on right to study will be imposed on university applicants, possibly preventing them from starting a course. Immigration officers have a notorious history of poor decision-making, even if there are routes for legal challenge via judicial review where bail conditions are believed to have been imposed wrongly.
During a parliamentary debate in 2015, James Brokenshire, then immigration minister, stated that “a restriction on study is only an option that is available…not a mandatory requirement”. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that immigration officers are issuing restrictions on studying without considering the impact that this might have on the individual. And explanations of changes to bail conditions are not being given, which means that would-be students risk breaching them unwittingly.
The right to study is one of those peculiar rights, like the right to rent accommodation, that has been quietly invented only to be quietly denied to poor, non-white asylum seekers and migrants. But this does not benefit British citizens: quite the opposite, since it restricts cultural diversity within universities. It also undercuts the widening participation and internationalisation agendas prized by many institutions.
What the existence of these new rules confirms, regardless of their consequences, is the insidious creep of the Home Office’s hostility to immigration into our educational establishments. As a community of academics, administrators, service staff, managers and students, we must work together to reject these intrusive measures. We must campaign for an end to right-to-study checks, fight for those students negatively impacted and establish more scholarships for forced migrants.
Only this way can we ensure that universities are regarded as educational sanctuaries, instead of arms of right-wing governance.
Katie Bales is a lecturer in law at the University of Bristol, where Bridget Anderson is professor of migration, mobilities and citizenship.