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Finding their way

What our research shows about the journey to university for young refugees in Coventry

  • In 2022, Refugee Education UK partnered with the University of Warwick’s English and Comparative Literary Studies Department to research the journey to university for refugees and asylum seekers who live in Coventry. You can read the full research report here. This blog reflects on some of the themes that emerged from this research.

This blog is accompanied by a series of photographs taken by Zanyar, an aspiring photographer from Kurdistan who is a graduate from REUK’s Leadership Course. Zanyar wanted to show people how he sees the world from his eyes by taking photographs to convey the key research themes.

Despite the desire to continue in education, the many challenges faced along the way cause many students to drop out of school or lose motivation to continue studying. Time is of essence to everyone, but particularly for a refugee student. The barriers experienced in accessing education cause severe delays in their education journeys.

The road to university for refugee and asylum-seeking young people in Coventry is often long and very rarely straightforward.

Despite strong aspirations and potential, young people may struggle to satisfy universities’ entry requirements.

Our research revealed inspiring examples of young refugees navigating these barriers and reaching university.

There were a lot of enabling factors identified, which helped refugee young people overcome the barriers they experienced in their journeys to university.

Having someone who could act as a mentor and lend a helping hand was important.

This could be a member of staff from a charity or a college, or a member of the community. Our research shows how important a mentor could be in providing refugee young people with encouragement, advice and guidance, and helping young people (re)discover their higher education aspirations amidst the challenges previously discussed.  

Even though 93% of all young person participants expressed a desire to continue in education, the barriers they faced eroded their ambitions over the course of the long and difficult journey.

Participants told of how refugee young people often have to choose between work and education. While many choose to work to save enough money for an education, the majority said having to provide for their family in their country of origin is what pushes them to find work and over time, give up on the dream of pursuing an education. The jobs that many young people are able to access quickly and more easily are often jobs that do not require English language skills. But by working in these jobs, young people do not have the chance to practise or develop their English language skills, making it even more difficult to progress to the level needed for university. 

One of the most challenging barriers described by research participants is meeting the English level requirements of universities. Young people described how they had to embark on a particularly extended journey to get to a certain level of English before they could even start a course which could lead them to university. For those with higher levels of English language and with potential and aspirations to study at university, the ESOL courses available to them were not able to equip them with university-level academic English skills. The research showed a gap in this university-level language support in Coventry.

Another research finding was, because of the lack of documentation and high costs associated with translating previous educational qualifications, many refugee and asylum seeking students have to, in the words of a young person, start from the “bottom of the ladder” and re-attain certification to qualify for university. 

The financial costs associated with accessing higher education can be prohibitive for refugee and asylum-seeking students. 

This barrier is further exacerbated by asylum-seeking students having to pay steep international student fees at university. The associated costs of accessing an education, including costs linked with translating documents, accommodation and transport, can often push the dream of getting an education further and further away. To add to these factors, the inability to access information on scholarships and other financial assistance available to them further disrupts plans of refugee and asylum-seeking students to access an education.

When asked about the solutions to the barriers they faced, one young person said that “it’s the system that’s wrong, but we are still fighting”. This highlights the inspiring way in which young people can remain resilient and optimistic about their futures. Young people who were typically further along in their education journeys also expressed eagerness to ensure that they could pass on information and advice to other refugee and asylum-seeking young people who are just starting out.

The local community in Coventry is a key source of support for refugee young people.

A young person’s local community within Coventry was reported to play a key role in helping them navigate challenges by nurturing their education ambitions and resilience. This included young people’s cultural communities, as well as a comprehensive network of support services for refugees and asylum seekers comprising the local council, voluntary sector organisations, churches, local universities and colleges, and student and volunteer initiatives.

Refugee young people demonstrate resilience, determination, and the desire to help others.

A local university can act as a bridge to higher education.

By welcoming local refugees and asylum seekers onto campus and showing them that universities can be inclusive places, local universities could shift refugees’ perceptions of university, helping them to realise that they could belong there. Research participants also thought that a university could reach out to local refugees and asylum seekers and provide helpful and encouraging information about routes to university, and provide academic English language support to those ready and eager to progress to university. 

Read the full research report here.

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