Student Solidarity Across Borders? Higher Education’s Historical Role in Assisting Refugee Communities

Posted on: 28 October 2015

The ongoing refugee crisis unfolding across Europe has many commentators speaking of the ‘unprecedented’ nature of problems facing national authorities, with many struggling to find a solution to dealing with the increasing influx of refugees.

However my new History & Policy report published this week – Student solidarity across borders: Students, universities and refugee crises past and present – highlights some important lessons from the past. Historically, the higher education sector has made important contributions in assisting refugees – be it Jewish students escaping Nazism or political dissidents fleeing the Pinochet regime – to escape conflict zones and successfully complete their education.

In previous refugee crises, special assistance for students formed part of the overall humanitarian aid effort, and students who were enabled to gain a degree in the UK have given back far more than they ever received in aid. Those assisted have made important contributions to the British economy, academia, science, culture and the arts as well as to society more generally, and often to their own countries upon their return.

Although some universities have begun to create new scholarship programmes for refugee students, the paper calls for a far bolder, sector-wide response to the crisis. Refugee students who have come to the UK in the past have benefited from being part of a cohort of such students. They have been able to integrate into their universities and colleges with the assistance of student and staff volunteers. Strong bonds have been built with British students through staying with host families during vacations and by social events on campus.

The paper argues that the UK’s Higher Education sector, which currently comprises 161 institutions and over 2 million students, is particularly well placed to respond to the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War with a bold new aid programme. It is clear that many students, student unions and other student organisations are keen to help the refugees, and I hope that my paper will provide useful insights from past experiences.

What is your student union or university doing to support refugees? Could you get involved with a new aid programme specifically targeting refugee students?


Dr Georgina Brewis

Dr Georgina Brewis is Senior Lecturer in the History of Education at UCL Institute of Education, University College London. She is a historian of education, youth and voluntary action and a founder of the Campaign for Voluntary Sector Archives. She is the author of A Social History of Student Volunteering: Britain and Beyond, 1880-1980 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

History and Policy is a unique collaboration between the Institute of Contemporary British History at King's College London and the University of Cambridge. It is the only project in the UK providing access to an international network of more than 500 historians with a broad range of expertise. H&P offers a range of resources for historians, policy makers and journalists.

Tags: Education, Policy, Social Action

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