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21 June 2024

Navigating Higher Education as Sanctuary Students

Jessica Hong, King’s MSc Global Affairs graduate

Research shows English language is the biggest barrier for forced migrants trying to access higher education in the UK.

Students studying in a library

I embarked on this research journey driven by a deeply personal connection and background with forced migration and was determined to look into the challenges forced migrants face seeking higher education in the UK. I refer to forced migrants and ‘sanctuary students’, adopting the terminology of universities like King’s with a culture of welcome for forced migrants. The barriers sanctuary students face, whether linguistic, institutional or social, highlight the inequalities they experience.

I surveyed 29 sanctuary students across the UK and through my findings, I identified three main trends within the UK context:

  1. English language is a barrier for sanctuary students to accessing higher education but is contingent upon their country of origin.
  2. English educational resources in the United Kingdom are insufficient for sanctuary students seeking access to higher education.
  3. Some sanctuary students expressed general satisfaction with the UK's support, but more is still needed. 

English language barriers

According to my data, if English is not an official language in sanctuary students’ home countries, English language is the major barrier they face. Approximately one third of respondents reported that they didn’t receive any English language assistance in the UK when accessing higher education.

While respondents forcibly displaced from Hong Kong, where English is an official language, reported no issues communicating or writing essays in English, or integrating into university life, respondents from Arabic-speaking countries and Sudan stated that English was a major barrier to navigating higher education. This is due to a dearth of English educational resources and support, as well as linguistic isolation that hinders the use of the language.

Forced migrants in the UK should feel welcomed, supported, and empowered as they embark on their education journeys"

Jessica Hong, King's graduate in MSc Global Affairs

Insufficient English language resources

The English educational resources in the United Kingdom prove insufficient for sanctuary students seeking to access higher education. Support does exist, but access is unequal, and demand outweighs provision.

The UK educational infrastructure often falls short of providing sanctuary scholars with the support needed throughout their educational journeys. Without adequate support, sanctuary students struggle to understand course materials, find it difficult to integrate into educational life, and underperform academically.

Satisfaction for half of respondents

Just under half of sanctuary students expressed satisfaction with the application process, the support team, and the transition and integration into university. This means just over half were dissatisfied.

Sanctuary students identified pre-application advice and guidance as the most helpful support, followed by financial advice and scholarship information, and clear instructions on application.


Our research led us to one major recommendation: Offer tailored English language support from specialist, trauma-informed educators who understand the specific needs of sanctuary students and can foster an inclusive learning environment.

As sanctuary students navigate unfamiliar environments and attempt to settle into a new country, educational institutions must provide practical support as well as a sense of safety and belonging. We must advocate for the rights and needs sanctuary students, ensuring they receive the education they deserve.