Sanctuary Scholarships, unlocking access to education for refugee students

By Joel Bates, Intern at What Works

A hidden imbalance of access to education may very well impact someone you know. A classmate, colleague, or friend who has been barred the right to an affordable education because they, or their family had to flee danger in the search for a better and safer life in the UK. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), only 3% of refugees are able to access higher education (HE) globally[i]. In recent years, a series of global refugee crises has highlighted an ever-growing need to offer sustainable and expansive support for: refugees, forced migrants, and their families. Since 2008, Sanctuary Scholarships have helped to mitigate against the systematic injustices faced by this specific group of students.

For context, the term ‘Sanctuary Scholarship’ is used to generally describe funding initiatives which exclusively support forced migrants without access to student finance or other private funding, to study at a UK university. As it stands, students from forced migrant backgrounds that are born, or brought up in the UK are not entitled to domestic fees due to their parents’ citizenship status and their own temporary immigration status. As a result, students are left to either pay higher international level university fees or abandon hopes of progressing to higher education. This goes against the mission of widening participation at King’s to work with “underrepresented learners and their supporters, empowering them to access, thrive and succeed in higher education.”[ii]

Sanctuary Scholarships at King’s: what have they achieved so far?

For each Scholar tuition fees are waived, and a means-tested living bursary is provided to ensure that recipients have the financial security to thrive at university. So far, Sanctuary Scholarships have enabled 25 King’s students that were otherwise locked out of education to make great strides and achieve personal and professional successes.

In March 2021, King’s Service Team commissioned a project to interview ten Scholars from past and present cohorts to explore how the students felt about their academic success and confidence levels (self-efficacy), as well as the wider benefits of the bursaries on Scholars’ university experiences. Through unlocking access to HE, the Scholars were able to achieve a deeper sense of self-belief, gain a greater sense of power and autonomy, along with improved levels of confidence. Highlighted below are some of the key outcomes that students shared as part of their interviews.

Finding one: Increased self-confidence was a key takeaway from these interviews:

“When I started the course, it just boosted my confidence, in terms of thinking that it is not too late to start university.” – Sanctuary Scholar.

This supports literature which has highlighted that refugee and forced migrants merely need guidance and support to vastly increase feelings of self-efficacy and confidence[iii].

Finding two: In interviews, scholars reported a reduction in feelings of self-defeat, and lack of self-determination:

It [the bursary] has helped me a lot because since I got the scholarship, then I thought whoever chose me, they must have believed in me. Now I know that I have potential. – Sanctuary Scholar.

Finding three: The interviews further highlighted that scholars possessed an abundance of drive and determination but were previously lacking opportunities to display their impressive work ethic:

I would take a bus and a train for two and a half hours before I got to work. I would do a night shift and then I would go to lessons in the morning… it becomes so engrained within you, you’re always operating” – Sanctuary Scholar.

The idea that forced migrants and refugees have the tenacity and drive to succeed but are simply held back by the systems in place is not a new realisation. Research has well established that unjust policies and systems are a significant factor to explain the uncertainty and chaos faced by forced migrants globally[iv].

Finding four:  Scholars felt systemic barriers limited their opportunities. This created tension and frustration from not being able to reach their true potential:

There is nothing more self-defeating, knowing that you can offer more but you’re always limited” – Sanctuary Scholar.

This finding is mirrored in wider literature[v], which outlines the issue with access and social mobility, caused by excluding refugees and forced migrants from entering HE

Finding five: Sanctuary Scholarships provide immeasurable support to vulnerable families, freeing them from the financial burden of funding HE for their children, siblings and grandchildren:

When I got that scholarship, it was like a giant weight had been lifted off my shoulders.–Sanctuary Scholar.

“My dad didn’t have to worry about where he’s going to find the next £30,000 to pay for my second year. Yes, so it’s a whole wide network sense of relief that you get.” –Sanctuary Scholar.

Finding six: Unfortunately, students reported a potential lack of understanding among HE staff:

I told her then that I was applying for the King’s scholarship, and she said, “Oh, why?” And I just explained to her what was going on. And she looked at me, so amazed” – Sanctuary Scholar.

All students deserve informed and reliable advice from staff, no matter their background. As the refugee crisis continues, HE staff must stay informed of common struggles and burdens that are unique to forced migrant students in order to offer helpful and accessible guidance to their students[vi].

This project carried out by What Works reflects how beneficial and important Sanctuary Scholarships, and other similar initiatives are for: the beneficiaries, their families and wider society. Research from the 2016 Syrian refugee crisis[vii] highlighted that not only did individuals and families gain access to education and social mobility, but society gained tangible benefits from the introduction of such dedicated young professionals into a wide array of competitive industries.

As such it is clear that many of our Scholars will go on to achieve academic and professional excellence throughout their lives. Something which will no doubt benefit the economy and society in the long term. With this in mind, it is more important than ever before to commit to supporting and creating opportunities for Sanctuary Scholars of the future.

Looking forward – Sanctuary Scholars of the future

With the socio-political upheaval currently taking place in Afghanistan it is foreseeable that many forced migrants will arrive in the UK searching for safety for themselves and their families. The unfolding crisis in Afghanistan serves to reinforce the value and need for initiatives such as the Sanctuary Scholarship programme. We must take action now. And double down our efforts to enable forced migrants to access HE and truly flourish.

Securing funding to support forced migrants in HE relies on generous donations and successful fundraising campaigns to provide the well-deserved support that Scholars would not ordinarily receive. Given the current crisis in Afghanistan, it is increasingly important to secure extra funds to maintain our Scholarship programme, and expand to meet the growing demand for fair and equitable access to education that all learners deserve.

What’s next?

To hear more about the Sanctuary Scholars project, you can contact What Works at

To support the Sanctuary Scholarship programme and the vital assistance it provides, contact Sarah Cook – Head of Major Gifts at

To show support for charities which support forced migrants and refugees in a wider context please see Refugee Action , Choose Love, RNLI.

To find out more about King’s work with refugees and forced migrants, visit the King’s Sanctuary Programme webpages.


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[i] United Nations High Commissioner for. (n.d.). Climate change and disaster displacement. UNHCR. Retrieved 24 August 2021, from


[iii] Tip, L. K., Brown, R., Morrice, L., Collyer, M., & Easterbrook, M. J. (2020). Believing is achieving: a longitudinal study of self-efficacy and positive affect in resettled refugees. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies46(15), 3174-3190.

[iv] Sobane, K., Momani, F. A., Bislimi, F., Nouns, I., & Lunga, W. (2018). Barriers to access to education for migrant children.

[v] Dryden-Peterson, S., & Giles, W. (2010). Higher education for refugees. Refuge: Canada’s Journal on Refugees27(2), 3-9.

[vi] Dunwoodie, K., Webb, S., & Wilkinson, J. (2019). Embracing Social Inclusion?: The Asylum Seeker Experience of Applying for Admission to Tertiary Education in Australia. In Power and Possibility (pp. 143-153). Brill Sense.

[vii] Wit, H. de, & Altbach, P. (2016). The Syrian Refugee Crisis and Higher Education. International Higher Education, 84, 9–10.

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