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New Birkbeck initiative provides life-changing education opportunities for asylum seekers

Twenty asylum seekers from troubled places around the world joined Birkbeck at the start of the new academic year thanks to the Compass Project, a ground-breaking initiative that provided fully-funded places for them to study undergraduate or postgraduate certificate courses of their choice.

Pictured left: Gloria Madyira, who came from Zimbabwe to study at Birkbeck.

A ground-breaking initiative at Birkbeck has allowed 20 asylum seekers from troubled places around the world to begin potentially life-changing studies, in what is believed to be the first opportunity of its scale in the United Kingdom.

The Compass Project, pioneered by Birkbeck’s Widening Access team alongside a number of organisations and sponsors, has provided fully-funded places to a group of people seeking asylum, on undergraduate or postgraduate certificate courses of their choice. 

The group includes people from war-torn countries and oppressive regimes including Syria, Iran, Russia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The students have undertaken courses in politics, data science, economics, healthcare, international development, law, international security and global governance, and legal methods.

The aim of the Compass Project is to help participants acquire a valuable nationally and internationally-recognised qualification that provides a foundation for further study, or for joining the workforce. The students are fully supported by academic mentors who will guide them through their studies and help them adapt to the British higher education system.

Among those who began their studies this month, Iranian activist Aghil Maniavi said the opportunity to embark on the Introduction to Politics course changed his life: “My residency status means I am not allowed to work, which means I couldn’t afford the fees on my own. I wouldn’t be able to enter higher education without this award – it’s the biggest opportunity I’ve ever had.”

Asylum seekers face a number of hurdles accessing higher education in the UK – their immigration status means that as well as being unable to work, they are considered international students and therefore have to pay tuition fees at a much higher rate. Without the support of the Compass Project, they are not eligible for support from the Student Loans Company and have no financial backing to pay tuition fees or maintenance.

Gloria Madyira, who came to the UK from Zimbabwe, said: “The Compass Project is a chance to have a brighter future and accomplish my dreams. If I am successful in passing my course, I hope to pursue a career as a nurse. I would like to thank the Compass Project for their help on behalf of all asylum seekers, including myself.”

Generous funding from partners and trusts like The Foundation; the charitable arm of consulting firm AlixPartners, international law firm Allen and Overy and Santander covered outreach activities and academic support for the students, while donations from the college’s alumni and The Blanes Trust covered living cost bursaries. The students were supported well before they landed places with help in navigating the academic system and preparing their applications. A range of specialist organisations such as Article 26 and Student Access for Refugees (STAR) helped to prepare the ground for the project and raise awareness alongside the college’s Widening Access and Outreach team.

Birkbeck's Head of Widening Access, Caroline McDonald, said: “This will make a real difference to a vulnerable group of people who have had to contend with huge upheavals and traumas in their lives. Through education they can begin to rebuild their lives – it will open up new opportunities and have a positive impact on the students and their families, and will bring benefits for society as a whole.

“For many, their studies have been disrupted or for various reasons they have not had the chance to continue their education, despite being bright and eager to learn."

Professor David Latchman CBE, Master of Birkbeck, said: “The College has a long tradition of working with vulnerable people and refugees. This project is in keeping with our founder George Birkbeck’s original mission almost 200 years ago: to bring education to every Londoner who wants to better themselves, regardless of means or background.”

The launch of the project comes at a time when Birkbeck has seen enrolment for full-time undergraduate degrees rise by 3% year on year. Applications for the College’s range of courses overall have risen by 8%.

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