Written by Lara Brett 


This policy paper will examine the accessibility of higher education and term-time employment for refugees and asylum seekers in the UK. Since 2015, Europe has experienced a migrant crisis, which was a defining factor in the UK’s decision to withdraw from the European Union (Wadsworth et al 2020). More recently, the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban has given rise to further displacement. Whilst it is difficult to ascertain the exact number of youth refugees and asylum seekers within the UK, we can use the data available to ascertain a rough estimate. Since 2016, 9,000 unaccompanied children have applied for asylum in the UK (The Children’s Society 2021), and by 2019, the country hosted 41,700 asylum seekers or resettled persons (Sturge 2021). Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights outlines the right of access to higher education (United Nations 1948). However, many migrants have been unable to complete their education, due to conflict, severely limiting their future employment prospects. 

This policy paper will explore the educational provisions for refugees and asylum seekers in the UK and their opportunities for employment during their time as students. It will then provide policy recommendations, exploring how future generations could be helped. 

The UK

The literature surrounding fee status for higher education is confusing at best. In the UK’s Immigration and Asylum Act, there is no reference to refugees’ right to access to education (The British Council 2019). However, Asylum Europe reports that, excepting asylum seekers on bail, adults should generally be able to access the education system (Refugee Council 2021). 

The introduction of the ‘no study’ condition in 2018 ensures that children aged up to and including the age of eighteen can access education. For older people, this is conditional according to their immigration status. For asylum seekers, a study condition “should not be imposed,” but this may not be the case for undocumented young people (Coram Children’s Legal Centre 2021). For UASC, there is a lack of clarity. They may be classified as overseas students (Refugee Council, 2021), if “applying to higher education while still on UASC leave,” but UASC care leavers may be able to continue in education if they are still undergoing the appeals process, but not if they are receiving leaving care support (Coram Children’s Legal Centre 2021). In the latter case, it is unclear whether such students would count as home or overseas. 

Access to education and fee remittance can vary according to country, a person’s refugee status, and age. For example, young people “must have the legal right to be resident in the United Kingdom at the start of their programme” to be classified as home students and eligible for financial support from the government (Education and Skills Funding Agency, 2020). This means that students with refugee status, humanitarian protection and Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children (UASC) can access such funds, but only if they are able to provide proof of residency. According to a UNICEF report, this residency must have been for three years prior to the start of a higher education programme (UNICEF, 2020). Otherwise, they may be classified as overseas students and eligible for higher fees. Information provided by Asylum Europe suggests that “Asylum seekers are routinely classed as overseas students,” whilst noting there may be exceptions for the “the child of an asylum seeker or a young asylum seeker (under 25)” in Scotland (Refugee Council, 2021). Some universities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland may occasionally charge asylum seekers the home students rate, although this does not appear to be common (Refugee Council, 2021).

Fee remission is also vastly complicated. In England, this is subject to a person’s age, legal and employment statutes. Refugees there above the age of 24 must pay full tuition fees. The country also does not grant fee remission to asylum seekers who have waited less than six months for a decision concerning their legal status, but the rules are far more lenient in Scotland. I was unable to find the corresponding date for Wales and Northern Ireland (The British Council, 2020). 

For refugee or asylum-seeking youth who may not yet have fluency in English or access to external support, the system’s confusion would also act as a barrier. This is in addition to lengthy legal procedures that cause them to spend significant time away from school or moving around the country. According to UNICEF, such absences can be “detrimental” when applying to higher education institutions  (UNICEF, 2020). Over one fifth of young people that the organisation consulted placed a high value on scholarships as an entry point into university. Such opportunities may be limited. Barriers may include “restrictive eligibility criteria; schemes which only partially cover university costs; and scholarship application dates that are not accessible to those applying to university through clearing” (UNICEF 2020). 

Organisations such as The Refugee Survival Trust attempt to compensate for the apparent lack of funding for study costs excluding tuition, and UCAS, which operates the UK’s university application system, and student advocacy organisation STAR endeavour to provide funding information (Refugee Study 2021, The British Council 2020, UCAS 2021).  Moreover, the new scheme Qualifications Passport for Refugees attempts to support refugees with missing or incomplete qualifications, and some universities offer pre-entry courses (The British Council, 2020, STAR Network 2021).  

In accordance with UK law, “unaccompanied asylum seeking children or children dependent on their parents […] are also able to take part in work experience placements or training if that forms part of their education” (UK Government 2021). Whilst placement years are becoming more common, many students work in hospitality during term time and may choose to pursue an internship over the summer break. Due to the rigid structure of the UK education system, full-time students are unable to pursue strenuous employment at the same time as taking classes. 

In conclusion, there is an urgent need for clearer information and procedures for higher education financial support, to allow refugees and asylum seekers to even get their foot in the door. Failure to support them in doing so will later exclude them from high-paying jobs and employment opportunities. 

Policy recommendations 

By facilitating the access of young refugees and asylum seekers to higher education, we give future generations the opportunity to develop their skills and improve their long-term projects. Governments should design policies with this in mind. Charities, NGOs, and community organisations appear to attempt to fill the gaps in government funding and support for refugees and asylum seekers, which is not an adequate long-term solution. Scholarships from the government and universities should be increased, including funding that does not only cover course costs. Such opportunities should not be limited in age. The war in Syria, for example, has raged for over ten years now, causing significant disruption to education and employment opportunities for millions. Youth over the age of the traditional cut off point of 24 also deserve access to education, and to scholarships. 

Post-university, there need to be greater links between universities and the private sector to help refugees enter the world of work. Graduate schemes could implement refugee quotas and university career counsellors need to have a detailed understanding of the unique barriers that refugees and asylum seekers face to the job market, to tailor their advice accordingly. 

In summary, educating refugees and asylum seekers equips them and us with the skills and knowledge needed to overcome existing labour force challenges. 


The British Council, 2019. Inclusion of refugees in technical and vocational education and training: an exploration into funding, planning and delivery. Belgium: The British Council. Available from: https://www.vettoolbox.eu/drupal_files/public/2020-04/Incl-Refugees-v6.pdf [Accessed 30.12.2021]

The Children’s Society, 2021. Young refugees and migrants. Available from: https://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/what-we-do/our-work/young-refugees-migrants [Accessed 29.12.2021] 

Coram Children’s Legal Centre, 2021. ‘No study’ conditions and immigration bail. Available from: https://www.childrenslegalcentre.com/resources/no-study-immigration-bail/ [Accessed 29.12.2021]

Education and Skills Funding Agency, 2020. Funding guidance for young people: 2020-2021. United Kingdom: The UK government. Available from: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/934846/16_to_19_funding_guidance_Regulations_2020_to_2021-Version_1.2.pdf [Accessed 30.12.2021]

Refugee Council, 2021. Access to education, United Kingdom. Available from: https://asylumineurope.org/reports/country/united-kingdom/reception-conditions/employment-and-education/access-education/ [Accessed 29.12.2021]

Refugee Study, 2021. Welcome to Refugee Study. Available from: https://www.refugee-study.co.uk/ [Accessed 29.12.2021]

STAR Network, 2021. Pre-university courses. Available from: https://star-network.org.uk/access-to-university/courses/ [Accessed 30.12.2021]

Sturge, G., 2021. Asylum Statistics. United Kingdom: The UK Government. Available from: https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/SN01403/SN01403.pdf [Accessed 29.12.2021]

UCAS, 2021. UK university scholarships for refugees and asylum seekers. Available from: https://www.ucas.com/connect/blogs/uk-university-scholarships-refugees-and-asylum-seekers [Accessed 30.12.2021]

UK Government, 2021. Permission to work and volunteering for asylum seekers. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/handling-applications-for-permission-to-take-employment-instruction/permission-to-work-and-volunteering-for-asylum-seekers-accessible-version [Accessed 29.12.2021]

UNICEF, 2020. Education transitions for refugee and asylum-seeking young people in the UK: Exploring the journey to further and higher education. United Kingdom: the Refugee Support Network for UNICEF. Available from: https://downloads.unicef.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Education-Transitions-UK-Refugee-Report.pdf [Accessed 29.12.2021]

The United Nations, 1948. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Geneva: The United Nations. Available from: https://www.un.org/sites/un2.un.org/files/udhr.pdf [Accessed 29.12.2021]

Wadsworth et al, 2020. Brexit and the impact of immigration on the UK. Available from: https://cep.lse.ac.uk/pubs/download/brexit05.pdf [Accessed 29.12.2021] 

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