By Robyn Banks
Raise your hand if you have ever criticised a foreign nation over their attitude to human rights. Keep it up if you’ve ever thought it a good reason to break aid or trade links with another nation. And now, raise your hand if you’ve ever thought that the UK couldn’t ignore an aspect of the human rights convention without serious consequences.
I can’t see your hands, obviously, but if I was in this fictional classroom scenario I know I’d have my hand up right now. A big part of my work in UEA Migrant solidarity campaign has been based on the idea that the UK, while certainly imperfect, could act as some kind of sanctuary for the millions fleeing war torn homelands this year. With our free at point of use National Health Service, established welfare system and plenty of national wealth, it can be easy to feel a bit smug. But what if I told you that we actually have some serious shaping up to do?
This article is about Article 26 of the Human Rights Convention- education for all. In it, it states that higher education should be available on the basis of merit, rather than the ability to pay. Students involved in protesting against the steady increase in tuition fees have probably already felt this right challenged, but there’s another group of people losing out on the right to education in this country. People who don’t get a maintenance grant, are not entitled to a tuition fee loan at all and, on top of that, are not even allowed to work to pay their own way.
the asylum process is, quite frankly, a shambles.
This year I started volunteering at an organisation in Norwich called New Routes, which helps to integrate refugees in to the local community. Through their training I learned that the asylum process is, quite frankly, a shambles. Asylum seekers are left in a nonsensical limbo while they await a decision, which can take years, and, in a similar vein to ATOS’s notorious antics with disability benefits, many applications are rejected only to be accepted again on appeal, apparently to keep Home Office immigration figures down. The appeals process, again, can take years.
During this time, asylum seekers are not considered British Citizens proper. They are not allowed to work, although most want to, forcing them to live on meagre state handouts. Their children are allowed to attend primary school and secondary school for free, as are all children in the UK, but as soon as they reach university age they face a massive obstacle- they can’t apply to student finance.
And this isn’t some hypothetical scenario. There are people in Norwich who want to apply to university, but they can’t. If you’re a student reading this, chances are you’ve struggled with decisions about whether or not you can afford a gap year or to participate in a course part time, how quickly you need to get in to the job market, how long you can afford to do an internship for before you end up living back home and all of the five year life plan and quarter life crisis stuff that comes with being an 18 to 25 year old adult today. If you have ovaries, you may even have been considering how the hell you’re going to have a family and still be a partner in a law firm by the time you’re 30.
Now imagine what those pressures would feel like if you weren’t able to begin your undergraduate degree until you were 23. The impact would be disastrous.
Article 26 states that access to higher education should be given on the basis of merit. In the past term, I’ve seen first-hand the kinds of bright, able and enthusiastic students who are left unable to take their academic careers any further because the UK refuses to offer access to higher education to asylum seekers. With no means of paying for their tuition, young people across the country find themselves stuck- unable to work, learn or grow while they await a decision with no foreseeable deadline. That doesn’t sound like the nation I thought we lived in, and with half of the Middle East in ruins this number is only sure to grow.
But there is hope. Universities across the country have, over the past few years, begun offering article 26 scholarships to asylum seekers which allow them to study free of charge. A list of these universities can be found on the Helena Kennedy foundation website, but there are only a few, and most will only offer one or two places. When a young person in Norwich expressed an interest in studying at UEA, I was saddened to see that the University I’m so proud to attend was not on the list.
UCL have recently offered 6 Article 26 scholarships to UK asylum seekers. With around 2,000 paying undergraduate students a year, offering 5 of these awards would hardly touch UEA’s wallet. And if we act quickly, we can even open up the opportunity to those hopefuls for 2016/17. But it will take pressure from the outside, and the UCAS deadline for most courses is the 15th January.
UEA Migrant Solidarity campaign have written to Vice Chancellor Professor David Richardson asking him to please consider our request, and we have published the letter on change.org alongside a petition. Please, sign the petition, and ask UEA to help us uphold human rights for all and to continue being a university we can be proud to attend, and to have attended, for years to come.