Finding home in education: A vision for inclusion and belonging in university spaces

Posted in: Internationalisation and Globalisation, Language and Educational Practices

This blog is from Mir Abdullah Miri, PhD Research Programme in Education

Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of participating in an art-based workshop, “Finding Home in Education,” hosted at King’s College London in collaboration with various Universities of Sanctuary. This event brought together people from asylum-seeking and refugee backgrounds who pursue their higher education across the UK. We used paintings, collages, and digital graphics to explore the concept of home in education. Since the initiative aligns with the theme for Refugee Week 2024, “Our Home,” our artworks were later displayed at different university sanctuaries nationwide.

On April 25th, 2024, the University of Bath, where I am studying for my PhD and a recipient of the Warm Welcome Scholarship, hosted an exhibition named after the workshop. This was a collaborative effort between Student Support and Bath STAR—Student Action for Refugees. Displaying my artwork along with those of other participants was deeply meaningful to me; this demonstrated how universities can build a sense of belonging and inclusion. The art-based expressions shared our personal narratives and visually communicated the broader challenges and aspirations of refugees in educational settings.

As Refugee Week 2024 approaches (June 17-23), it’s important to highlight how transformative education can be for those who have lost their homeland and are finding their feet in a new country. More than just knowledge, education provides a community where refugees feel understood and valued.

Managing expectations in refugee education

A triangular diagram that sums up how 'managing expectations' is influenced by 'volunteers and support workers', 'refugees' and 'educational institutions'.
The triangular approach to refugee education.

Finding a way through the challenges of refugee education requires a flexible, compassionate approach that acknowledges the diverse backgrounds and difficulties faced by refugees. I advocate for what I call a triangular approach that corresponds with the expectations of three key groups: refugees themselves, support workers, and educational institutions.

Why a triangular approach? This approach addresses the diverse needs and experiences that refugees bring with them. It’s essential that each angle of the triangle—refugees, support workers, and educational institutions—plays its role effectively.

Refugees often arrive with qualifications that aren’t directly transferrable to their host environments. For example, a pharmacist from Syria might discover that to practice in the UK, additional exams and licensing are required. Refugees need to understand these requirements from the beginning, adjusting their expectations about how quickly they can resume their careers. Educational workshops on qualification conversion and recognition could help manage these expectations and provide a clear roadmap for professional inclusion.

Support workers must also manage their expectations regarding the assistance they can provide to refugees who plan to pursue higher education. They must recognise that while some universities offer specialised support recognising the specific challenges faced by refugees, others might not be as accommodating and may treat refugees similarly to other international students. For example, support workers might expect a university to adapt its requirements for a refugee with a professional background from Syria, only to find the institution adheres strictly to standard protocols. This discrepancy highlights the need for support workers to prepare for varying degrees of flexibility across universities and to advocate for more inclusive educational policies. This awareness enables support workers to guide refugees through potential challenges better and to identify institutions with supportive practices.

An artwork displaying a key with a University mortarboard on top of it. The words 'unlocking sanctuaries of belonging' and 'reimagining refugee education'.
Mir's artwork from the Finding Home in Education workshop.

Educational institutions play a crucial role by offering flexible options that acknowledge refugees’ prior learning and professional experience. A practical example could be a university that introduces an assessment programme specifically designed for refugees who had careers in their home country, such as portfolio reviews or competency tests, which assess professional knowledge without requiring full retraining. This approach would help refugees adapt more seamlessly into degree programmes or professional fields.

It is important to highlight that language proficiency is a common barrier. Universities could offer specialised language support classes that help refugees meet general proficiency requirements and cover technical language skills related to their fields of study. For example, a university might develop a targeted English for Healthcare Professionals course to help refugees with medical backgrounds adapt more quickly to the UK’s healthcare system.

Another practical application could involve a university providing bridging courses tailored to refugees’ prior educational backgrounds. For example, an engineer from Afghanistan might benefit from targeted support that recognises their previous experience and only requires them to take courses essential for meeting local professional standards.

By adjusting expectations and refining evaluation practices across these three areas, universities, support workers, and refugees themselves can create an educational environment that supports the unique needs of refugees and enriches the educational community as a whole. This triangular approach doesn’t just solve problems—it transforms challenges into opportunities for growth and learning for everyone involved.

How to support this cause more effectively

Supporting this cause requires combined efforts from multiple stakeholders. Universities can enhance their support by implementing more inclusive policies, such as recognising diverse educational backgrounds and offering tailored language support. Workshops like “Finding Home in Education” are crucial for fostering dialogue and understanding between students from refugee backgrounds and the wider university community. These initiatives raise awareness and help create an environment where every student, regardless of their background, can feel at home.

To further these efforts, higher education institutions, policymakers, community leaders, refugee support organisations, and refugee families must work together to dismantle barriers and cultivate an educational landscape that celebrates diversity and inclusion. By doing so, we ensure that our universities are not just centres of learning but sanctuaries of hope and belonging for all.

Posted in: Internationalisation and Globalisation, Language and Educational Practices

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