Refugee students in higher education: developing a sense of mattering

By Professor Jacqueline Stevenson, Head of Research in the Sheffield Institute of Education.

Refugees and asylum seekers are rarely out of the news. The most recent UNHCR Global Trends report found that in 2015 65.3 million people, or one person in 113, were displaced from their homes by conflict and persecution, of which 21.3 million were refugees. Developing countries bear the burden of the influx, hosting over 86% of the world’s refugees. In contrast, the UK takes in very few asylum seekers receiving only 38,878 new applications throughout the whole of 2015.

Those who are able to claim asylum in the UK face an uncertain future, as they are normally only granted leave to remain for five years. This can make planning for the future highly problematic: without indefinite leave refugees are unable to access student loans; on top of this they may find that their prior qualifications are not recognised, or that their needs and entitlements are not understood.

Nevertheless, as my previous research has shown many refugees still consider that gaining a HE qualification offers the best chance to make a new life in a new country. This is particularly the case for the almost 50 per cent of refugees who hold a qualification on arrival in the UK or those who have worked in professional roles prior to fleeing their countries of origin. Gaining or regaining a higher education qualification offers the possibility of re-establishing professional occupations and re-securing employment commensurate with their skills.

In addition, refugees may regard higher education as a place where they can regain a sense of worth, which may have been lost through the trauma of bereavement, persecution and relocation. Worth is the subjective perception that we make a difference to others in our lives. Knowing that we matter, that we are the (positive) focus of other people’s attention, that we are important to those around us, are depended on and appreciated by those we come in to contact with, is essential to the way we value ourselves. Re-developing a sense of worth is therefore fundamental to both refugees’ sense of self and their sense of identity.

For these reasons, I have just set up a refugee mentoring scheme in partnership with Voluntary Action Sheffield specifically designed to enable refugees to develop a sense of worth – to individuals and to the university. The aim of the scheme is to link up individual members of staff with individual refugees, primarily those from professional backgrounds, with a view to helping the refugees gain a better understanding of how their profession/area of work operates in the UK; help them to develop a focussed CV, decode job adverts, write an application form etc.; and for those who might wish to retrain or requalify, help them develop an understanding of UK higher education – wherever they may wish to study.

When I first put out the call for prospective mentors I was unsure whether anyone would give up their time, but I have been delighted and overwhelmed by the response. If you would like to get involved with the Sheffield Mentoring Scheme please get in touch with Jacqueline Stevenson or Daniel Philliskirk at for more information.