This article originally appeared in print for Roar.
“Sitting in a lecture theatre, I look at these people and think – you don’t know the struggle,” says Sharon Akaka, 19.
At the age of eight, her and her family moved from Nigeria to live and work in Dagenham, east London. It was not until Sharon and her siblings applied for university, that they found themselves ineligible for a student loan due to their migrant status.
“I thought that if you had status, you could get Student Finance,” she says. Despite achieving the grades to accept her offer to study History at King’s College London, her limited leave to remain was not enough.
“We are in a loophole that no-one knows about”
Many long-standing migrants who completed their schooling in the UK find that, when applying to Student Finance, they are ineligible for a loan – leaving them stuck in education limbo.
Arkam Babar, 20, arrived in Walthamstow, east London, from Pakistan when he was ten years old. After nearly a decade in the education system, he soon discovered that he did not qualify for Student Finance. As a result, he was forced to turn down an offer to study Geography at Queen Mary University of London and take two gap years: “It was breaking dreams. Not just my dreams, but my parents’ dreams.”
As a legal resident of Britain his whole life, Arkam could potentially have to wait another ten years to get citizenship. His last two applications for indefinite leave to remain were deemed invalid. At his tribunal hearing to overturn the decision, the home office failed to show up.
Both Sharon and Arkam are naturalised Britons. They went to school here, have jobs, and speak with a London accent.
“I had seen myself to be British. I had British culture, British values. It made me realise that I am not British and I am going to be limited. It was really demoralising,” Sharon reveals.
For Sharon, whose family were lawful residents until renewal of their status, the legal process is draining. At one point, Sharon was granted stay, while the rest of her family were denied and sent to court at Harmondsworth Immigration removal centre – a building conveniently placed just a few meters away from Heathrow Airport: “You can see the planes leaving from your window,” she says.
— TheDetentionForum (@DetentionForum) November 7, 2016
With Theresa May’s announcement earlier this month that “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere,” the crackdown on international students is felt most by long-standing migrants, many of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds in and around London. The paradox of government desire to increase ‘equality‘ and ‘diversity’ at universities is in its recent announcement of plans to introduce major new restrictions on the number of overseas students.
Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to education.” But higher education appears to be a privilege afforded to a select few. Those with money can fast-track their citizenship applications, or pay their tuition fees in full. For low-income household migrants, their prospects are slim. “I am competing with people who have these opportunities by blood,” says Sharon.
Determined to attend university, Sharon considered private loans with extremely high interest rates. Arkam said that even if he had deferred entry and attempted to self-fund, he still would not have been able to afford the crippling international fees. “We are in a loophole that no-one knows about,” he says.
The charity Just for Kids Law alone deals with over 600 young people stuck in education limbo; but the figure represents only a fraction of those struggling to reach higher education.
The supreme court issued new guidelines for students with migrant backgrounds last year, following campaigning by Just for Kids Law. However, many activists claim that young migrants are still losing out. To qualify, students have to prove that they have lived here for half their life, and have had “lawful ordinary residence” for at least three years.
“If I can’t have this and I can’t have that, all I have is my education”
Following the rejection, Sharon says that “For the first time I saw myself as an immigrant. Not only myself as an immigrant, but as a stigmatised immigrant, who just wanted to come out and take everything from the country and go away. Whereas I initially thought I was given those opportunities.”
“I always thought, if I can’t have this and I can’t have that, all I have is my education.”
The Helen Kennedy Foundation created the project Article 26 in support of migrant educational rights. Rebecca Murray, director of the project, said “One thing that is often very apparent is that universities want to do something, to supply help and support, but it is a new area. And it requires a great deal of knowledge and understanding. So there is a natural anxiety over people seeking asylum and are not subject to visa requirements.”
She added “There’s a huge prejudice against people seeking asylum – they are often kept invisible. They want to go to university, so they can be socially and economically independent in the future, as a way of saying thank you for the safety that has been afforded to them in the UK.”
According to the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, 48% of migrants came to the UK for work, while 33% came to study, between 2015-2016. When they arrive, many migrants struggle with language barriers and access to higher paid jobs.
“As immigrants, our quality of life is not very good,” Arkam explains. “To say we have struggled in this country is an understatement.” Sharon added “there have been times where four of us have lived in one room. You are literally counting your pennies.”
“It was like the end of the ten-year struggle”
Sharon and Arkam are not ordinary students – they are high achieving students. Supported by the Let us Learn campaign, they secured two sanctuary scholarships at King’s – providing them with a place at a leading university, a full tuition fee waiver and living costs payments. “It was like the end of the ten-year struggle,” Arkam declares.
The scholarships have had a positive impact on their confidence. Sharon explains that her status was “more than a story – it has such an emotional hold on me.”
“I felt like my story owned me, rather than me owning my story. And the one thing that’s great about Let us Learn is that they train you to use your story in a powerful way.”
King’s recently expanded its scholarship definition to include ‘asylum-seekers’ and migrant students unable to access higher education. “We are trying to get Universities to understand the difference between asylum-seekers, long-term migrants and refugees,” Arkam says. He hopes that this will inspire other universities to open up more scholarships.
Shauneen Lambe, founder and director of Just for Kids Law, said “The King’s scholarships have transformed the lives of two amazing and impressive young people, who were previously stuck in education limbo. Arkam and Sharon are key members of the Let us Learn campaign and we could not be more delighted for them.”
She added “We really hope that other universities follow King’s lead, and set up similar schemes so that more young people like them also have a chance to continue their studies. These are young people who want to give back to their communities and wider British society and it is in all our interests that they have a chance to do so.”
— Just for Kids Law (@Justforkidslaw) September 13, 2016
With such a tiny number of scholarships available, hundreds of talented young people remain blocked from higher education. “We are not selfish, in a way,” Arkam says. “It is one of those things I feel like I am entitled to.” In the meantime, the King’s scholarship has provided two gifted young students a chance to follow their dreams.
Donations for Just for Kids Law can be made here.