From sanctuary in health to university of sanctuary

William Lee Mitchell of the University of Liverpool, UK and Melanie Haith-Cooper of the University of Bradford, UK discuss the role higher education institutions can play in offering a measure of sanctuary to those caught up in the ever-deepening refugee crisis. 

In the face of the refugee crisis, what does it mean to be a university of sanctuary? There are things a university can do, as would any other large organisation made up of people who care about the situation and want to help – collections, donations, volunteering, and so on. But then there are things that a university is uniquely suited to doing – research and education in particular. And what about the range of services such as library and sports facilities that we provide to our students and staff?

It’s important to realise that the challenges of asylum seekers and refugees has been with us for a long time and that we shouldn’t reinvent the wheel. Various organisations have emerged in the UK to support those in need. One of the most comprehensive is the City of Sanctuary organisation, set up in 2005 and now a network of towns and cities across the UK which are proud to be places of safety for people seeking sanctuary and to help them integrate into their local communities. Aligning the university with other like-minded bodies is important, particularly if we want to be part of the wider community.

Another long-standing UK organisation is CARA, the Council for At Risk Academics. CARA was founded in 1933 by British academics in response to Hitler's decision to expel hundreds of leading scholars from German universities on racial grounds. There are now 115 UK universities signed up for CARA’s Scholars At Risk UK Universities network. Hosting an academic at risk can make a significant difference in that person’s life.

One other area a university can make a difference is of course by offering student scholarships. In this situation a scholarship really can be life changing.  I was lucky enough to be on a scholarship panel recently. One of the successful applicants said that she was active in theatre.  A few days later I went along to see her on stage and stayed for the question and answer session at the end. She didn’t know I was there and at one point she said to the audience, “there is something I need to tell you. In my country I was a qualified teacher but in the UK I am not allowed to teach. I am proud to tell you that on Monday I will be enrolling on a course at University.” In these days of focus groups and questionnaires, sometimes it’s the impromptu, heart-felt views that really make you realise the importance of higher education.