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Sanctuary at The Open University

Becoming a University of Sanctuary  

As more people are forced to flee oppression and conflict in their countries and seek refuge in the UK, there is a stronger need to make them feel safe, secure, and provide pathways to meaningful societal integration. Higher education (HE) is one of the world’s best investments for ensuring a more equitable and educated world. Continued opportunities for learning provide individuals of all ages with the skills, capabilities, and confidence to claim their rights to health, protection, livelihoods, wellbeing, and self-reliance. HE can provide people from forced migration backgrounds with the opportunity to gain access to appropriate skills and employment opportunities, participate in new social and professional networks, and contribute to their new homes. Not only this, but returnees with high education levels are key drivers of post-conflict peacebuilding and reconstruction in their countries of origin. Educated refugees also serve as role models within their community and often engage in activities that strengthen community-based protection. The UNHCR estimates that only about 5% of the world’s 25.9 million refugees have access to HE opportunities in the host states, a long way from the target of 15% set for 2030

The Open University (OU) has a long-standing commitment to offering support and raising awareness of those seeking sanctuary through teaching, research, knowledge exchange, as well as community and civil society engagement. In the past few years, the OU has been involved in several activities seeking to ensure better access and increased participation in education for forced migrants.  

Joining a growing network of sanctuary universities in the UK will help bring together the OU’s existing, past, and future efforts and engagements with forced migrant learners, and help the university better align its mission of being open to people, places, methods, and ideas.  

Our institution wants to seize the opportunity to rethink how we tackle inequality inside and outside the OU and use the University of Sanctuary award process to demonstrate the work we already do, as well as develop new commitments that will help us better foster our dedication to a culture of awareness and inclusivity.

The University of Sanctuary, an initiative first started in 2005, promotes the vision that our nations should be welcoming places of safety for all, and offer sanctuary to people fleeing violence and persecution. A University of Sanctuary is a place where everyone feels safe, welcome, and able to pursue their right to education. University of Sanctuary recognition is given to institutions that can demonstrate building a culture of hospitality to people wishing to study there, as assessed by the City of Sanctuary UK. City of Sanctuary also began in 2005 and promotes the same vision. Our nation offices in Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh are located in Cities of Sanctuary. Milton Keynes is also currently seeking recognition as a City of Sanctuary.

The OU joined the Cara network in 2020 and is currently working to provide a practical response to the crisis in Afghanistan, by providing fellowships and hosting at-risk academics at the OU. Both organisations will continue working together to build a long-term strategy, ensuring that at-risk academics can find sanctuary at the OU. 

If you’re a scholar at risk or would like to find out more about Cara, please contact info@cara.ngo.

Migration and forced displacement are key areas of focus for cross-disciplinary research at the OU, where important issues and challenges related to forced migration and sanctuary seekers are addressed both theoretically and through engagement with local, national and international organisations. Projects at the OU aim to build capacity among organisations to address the skills needs of forced migrants. Another strand focuses on integration and citizenship. On this International Development and Innovative Inclusive Innovation (IDII) research page, you will find some of the recent and ongoing projects undertaken by the OU.

Some more recent examples of research and engagement include:

Covid-19 Chronicles from the Margins

Covid-19: Chronicles from the Margins investigates the pandemic crisis from the perspectives of asylum seekers and refugees, using creative methods and celebrating artful acts of resistance to marginalisation. The project, which is funded by the OU and the International Institute of Social Studies (Netherlands), involves co-creating a digital archive and exhibition that chronicles the impact of Covid-19 through the use of smartphone tools.

The Refugees’ Educational Resources project

The Refugees’ Educational Resources (RefER) project was carried out between June and November 2018. The aim was to provide an understanding of the learning resources offered by organisations working with refugees and asylum seekers in the UK, and to advise the OU on how it might repackage existing resources, or create additional ones, to directly respond to the needs of those organisations and the individuals they support.

Participating organisations included national and local charities and other universities in the UK. The services they provide include counselling, English language teaching, legal advice, and settling-in support. One of the key outputs from the project is a Resources Audit, which provides brief descriptions of, and links to, over 500 relevant free, online resources.

For refugees and asylum seekers, these resources cover topics such as English language skills, digital literacy skills, and study skills. For frontline staff, main topics include information about legal aspects of migration in the different nations of the UK, guidelines for working in the voluntary sector, and resources on inclusion and equality. Resources are found predominantly on OpenLearn, the OU’s free learning platform, but also on many other platforms and sites.

Read the final report from the RefER project.

Year of Mygration

In 2019, as the OU entered its 50th year, it embarked on the ambitious first-of-its kind ‘Year of Mygration’ project, to showcase and celebrate the experiences, work and contributions of migrants and sanctuary seekers at the OU, both past and present. The project was developed as a collaboration between two areas of the OU – Citizenship and Governance and International Development and Inclusive Innovation Strategic Research. The project team shared a reflection every day from Monday to Friday for 50 weeks of the year, to emphasise that everyone is affected by migration. Reflections were shared in the forms of a short blog, podcast or archive clip, a tweet, or an article. The reflections were numbered from one to 250, partly so that anyone can start their own Year of Mygration in any year and at any point in any year. This remarkable project produced several fascinating stories, reports and collaborations and it’s hope that others will further innovate and emulate this initiative in the coming years.

Connected learning in crisis contexts: educators’ perspectives on needs and support in the context of refugee tertiary education

English language skills are a significant barrier to tertiary education for refugees. This is due to minimal English Language Teaching (ELT) in countries of origin and further perpetuated by a lack of access to quality language learning opportunities for refugees during displacement. It is critical that teachers in crisis contexts are supported to improve and expand ELT. The overall aim of the research into this area is to contribute to the evidence base on how to improve ELT in crisis contexts, building on existing research and programmes and drawing on connected learning programmes in Jordan and Lebanon. The specific objective of this research is to provide further understanding of how to contextualise ELT innovations and development at scale. Qualitative methodologies and participatory approaches will be used with refugee teachers as peer-researchers to generate rich insights about perspectives on needs and support in the context of refugee tertiary education and ensure that the views of marginalised and disadvantaged groups can be heard.

If you’re a student at the OU from a forced migration or refugee background and would like to get in touch, please contact Aditya Ray at OUSanctuary@open.ac.uk.

Improving Access to Higher Education and Employment for Forced Migrants

In June 2021, the OU held a conference in partnership with Swansea City of Sanctuary – Improving Access to Higher Education and Employment for Forced Migrants. The conference brought together policymakers, asylum seekers and refugees, researchers and academics, and community organisations to debate and discuss issues relating to access, at a time when Swansea not only celebrated a decade of becoming a City of Sanctuary, but also the Welsh Government’s Nation of Sanctuary Refugee and Asylum Seeker Plan was due for release. With a variety of stakeholders in attendance, the barriers faced by forced migrants in accessing HE and employment were identified, and potential solutions were put forward to overcome those barriers. The report following this conference is underway and will be uploaded to this page in October. 

Pathways into Study pilot project – Scotland

In January 2021, the OU’s Access Participation and Success Scotland team invited third sector and community groups that support forced migrants in Scotland to a virtual roundtable event called Open to People. They were invited to contribute ideas for how the OU in Scotland could support their work and partner with them to improve learning opportunities for these communities. The project builds on the ideas and contributions of participants, who identified key gaps in provision that the OU’s expertise in online learning could help address.

Pathways into study will provide study support from an OU tutor to develop readiness for HE, alongside guidance on course choice and funding options. This strand is targeted at people who have language fluency but may need to develop English for academic purposes and skills for online learning, with an initial cohort of 20 participants. The OU is partnering with the Scottish Refugee Council and Bridges Programmes to identify and recruit participants for the programme which starts October 2021. The Pathways into Study programme will help develop the skills and confidence participants may need to succeed in HE. Learner journeys will be tracked through the programme and into formal study with the OU. The learning from the pilots will inform how to best respond and scale up the project in future years. It will also help identify what works and how the model can be adapted to meet the challenges that impact the most disadvantaged groups from accessing education or employment in Scotland. The pathway piloted in 2021/22 will form part of an online toolkit to be hosted on OpenLearn, along with learning, case studies, co-created resources and other outputs from the project.

Many of the OU’s existing activities and initiatives that may be geared towards forced migration and forced migrant learners remain dispersed and undocumented. Furthermore, no specific audits have been conducted and no data is available on numbers of students seeking sanctuary. No university-wide commitments have yet been made to supporting asylum seekers and refugees. 

The OU is currently working on a feasibility study to assess the routes which will lead the institution to becoming a University of Sanctuary (UoS). It will consider the actions needed to determine the success factors, benefits and risks of becoming a member of this award.   

The study will look at forced migrant scholars and academics, both within the OU and in the wider education sector, as well as academic and support activity in relation to forced migration which takes place at the OU and in collaboration with partners. It will also consider a cost-benefit analysis associated with different models of satisfying criteria for becoming a University of Sanctuary. This work can only happen with the support of the OU community, whose members include those who have a history of forced migration, whether recent or the past.  

If you are, or have been, involved in any forced migration work, we would love to hear from you. Please fill in this short questionnaire and we will contact you for further information.

The OU’s Sanctuary Working Group, chaired by Professor Marie Gillespie, comprises colleagues from across the institution, united in their commitment to work towards creating a place of sanctuary and safety at the university. Below are the current working group members:

  • Alayla Castle-Herbert 
  • Koula Charitonos 
  • Laura Collins 
  • Lidia Dancu 
  • Marie Gillespie 
  • Neil Graffin 
  • Suki Haider 
  • Rebecca Murray 
  • Fidele Mutwarasibo 
  • Hazel Nixon 
  • Aditya Ray 
  • Gill Ryan 
  • Michael Young

The Sanctuary Steering Group (SSG) is a large group comprising more than 60 colleagues from the university executive board, across the OU’s four faculties, support services and management, as well as colleagues from supporting organisations. The SSG members share an interest in social justice, issues of forced migration and human rights, and have a wealth of knowledge and experience in a variety of fields. The SSG is updated by the Sanctuary Working Group, which meets regularly to inform and advise on the work on the University of Sanctuary bid.

OU Universities of Sanctuary Steering Group members