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University of Edinburgh pledges to step up refugee support

ByGavin Dewar

Sep 23, 2015

The University of Edinburgh is assembling an advisory team for students and academics fleeing war and persecution.

As the European refugee crisis continues to escalate, a University spokesperson announced: “A team based in the University’s International Office will offer advice to prospective students and staff with refugee status.

“Edinburgh will provide a range of measures to help displaced staff and students.

“Staff will offer English language tuition, financial advice, counselling and support with admissions.

“The University will continue to provide financial assistance for students and staff with refugee status, including £100,000 in refugee scholarship support over the next three years.”

As refugees from war-torn countries around Europe continue to push through the EU’s borders in search of sanctuary, universities have been preparing to take in and protect a number of those seeking higher education.

The University of Edinburgh spokesperson cited the University’s reputation and past actions as a reason for establishing an adaptable refugee policy, saying: “Edinburgh is a member of the CARA (Council for At Risk Academics) network and staff and student societies already engage with refugees in a variety of ways.”

They continued: “The initiative forms part of the University’s longstanding track record of offering support and assistance to students and staff seeking sanctuary from areas affected by conflict.

“In the last year the University has supported 14 students and a number of Syrian academics who have fled from the Middle East and other areas.

“The University recently agreed to provide a bursary to assist a Syrian CARA Fellow who is on a post-doctoral placement at Edinburgh.

“Edinburgh has also provided financial assistance to a Masters student from Eritrea. The student, who has been granted refugee status in the UK, will begin their course this month.”

However, when asked by The Student how many students and staff with refugee status are expected in the upcoming year, and how many refugee students and staff the new team is prepared to deal with, the University did not provide any exact numbers or projections.

Instead, Euan Fergusson, Head of International Student Support, advocated a flexible approach. He told The Student, “Over the past few years in particular, we have found that situations that put people in need of seeking humanitarian protection or refugee status can arise at any time during someone’s studies or work at the University.

“We also have students and staff in our community who are in the UK under protected or refugee status from the outset.

“Given the rapidly developing situation we are seeing, it is important to identify and promote a point of contact for people who might seek assistance from us.

“Similarly, it is important to formalise the support and assistance we have already been providing to a number of people over a number of years, including financial.

“The guiding principle is that a person’s refugee or protected status should not be a barrier to seeking opportunities in education.

“With a view to world events, the only approach that we can maintain is to be adaptable amid uncertainty and that provision and support is reviewed and developed further, as and when circumstances require.”

The University said that some of the funding would come from the Silber Bequest, a fund “which is available to assist prospective postgraduate students living in the UK who have been granted refugee status”.

The University of Edinburgh made the announcement a week after the University of Glasgow’s own pledge to prepare fee waivers and a scholarship fund for refugees.

The Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University, which is also a member of CARA, announced the new measures.

Professor Anton Muscatelli said: “We are facing a major refugee crisis in Europe and, as it has done so many times in the past, the university community is responding in a meaningful, tangible way.”

The University of Glasgow has pointed to the story of a Syrian couple, both formerly academics at the Damascus University now working at Glasgow, as evidence of the need to support refugees seeking aid from European universities.

The academics, known by the aliases Muhammed and Joury, described escaping Syria after colleagues and students started disappearing, struggling to support their newborn child in Kuwait and then Turkey, and eventually appealing to CARA universities after catching the organisation’s attention online.

They told of the worsening situation at Damascus University, where they had been ordered to report the names of “potential troublemakers”. Muhammed explained: “They said it was either you or them. The campus was turning in on itself. It was brutal, merciless. Academics were targeted by the state and Isis alike.”

As the University of Edinburgh prepares to step up its refugee support, stories such as Muhammed and Joury’s play heavily on the minds of European university authorities.

The University of Edinburgh’s Vice-Principal International, Professor James Smith, expressed his support for the new advisory team. He stated, “The University strongly believes in supporting talented scholars and academics seeking sanctuary in the UK. We recognise the University can make an important contribution.

“Offering a Refugee Advisory Service will assist refugees by pulling together the University community in order to offer assistance to people who have suffered such trauma.”


Image: A vigil in support of the refugees fleeing turmoil, war and persecution at home was held outside the Scottish Parliament earlier in September

Image credit: Gavin Dewar

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