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Sanctuary at the Open University

Seeking to become a University of Sanctuary

As more people are forced to flee oppression and conflict in their countries and seek refuge in the UK, there is a stronger need to make them feel safe, secure, and provide pathways to meaningful societal integration. HE can provide people from forced migration backgrounds with the opportunity to gain access to appropriate skills and employment opportunities, participate in new social and professional networks, and contribute to their new homes. Not only this, but returnees with high education levels are key drivers of post-conflict peacebuilding and reconstruction in their countries of origin. Educated refugees also serve as role models within their community and often engage in activities that strengthen community-based protection. The UNHCR estimates that only about 5% of the world’s 25.9 million refugees have access to HE opportunities in the host states, a long way from the target of 15% set for 2030.

The Open University (OU) has a long-standing commitment to offering support and raising awareness of those seeking sanctuary through teaching, research, and knowledge exchange, as well as through community and civil society engagement. In the past few years, the OU has been involved in several activities seeking to ensure better access and increased participation in education for forced migrants.

Joining a growing network of Universities of Sanctuary in the UK will help bring together the OU’s existing, past, and future efforts and engagements with forced-migrant learners, and help the University better align its mission of being open to people, places, methods, and ideas.

Our institution wants to seize the opportunity to rethink how we tackle inequality inside and outside the OU, to demonstrate the work we already do, and to develop new commitments that will help us better foster our dedication to a culture of awareness and inclusivity.


Statement from Professor Marcia Wilson, Dean of EDI at The Open University



The Open University’s mission is to be open to people, places, methods and ideas. Social justice is at the centre of this and we are committed to creating a welcoming, safe and inclusive environment for all. We are working towards creating an institution that is truly open and welcomes people who are seeking asylum and from refugee backgrounds. We are pleased to offer Sanctuary scholarships that will help recipients transform and rebuild their lives by removing some of the barriers to accessing education. This is an important part of our ‘Learn and Live’ University Strategy focusing on equity of opportunity and building inclusivity for all. There is always more that can be done and that is why we are working towards becoming a University of Sanctuary to continue showing commitment for this important work. We are always working to build on our commitments and aim to become a University of Sanctuary to continue this important work.

Find out more information about Sanctuary initiatives across The Open University below

An initiative that was established in 2005, University of Sanctuary promotes the vision that our nations should be welcoming places of safety for all, and should offer sanctuary to people fleeing violence and persecution. A University of Sanctuary is a place where everyone feels safe, welcome and able to pursue their right to education. University of Sanctuary recognition is given to institutions that can demonstrate their commitment to building a culture of hospitality for people wishing to study there, as assessed by City of Sanctuary UK. City of Sanctuary also began in 2005 and promotes the same vision. Our nation offices in Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh are located in Cities of Sanctuary. Milton Keynes is also currently seeking recognition as a City of Sanctuary.

The Open Futures Sanctuary Scholarship, which launched for the first time in academic year 2022/23, provides the opportunity for new, UK-resident students who have been displaced from their homeland or place of residence for political, economic, ethnic, environmental, or human rights pressures, to study for free.

There are 12 scholarships available in 2023/24. A scholarship covers up to 360 credits of OU undergraduate credit-bearing study, paying for the full tuition cost of these credits, up to 120 credits each seasonal academic year and 360 credits in total.

There are also 50 OU Access Module Fee Waivers available, which covers the cost of one OU Access module starting in Autumn 2023.

The Sanctuary Working Group have also put together a Powerpoint to provide an accessible introduction to the scholarships: Sanctuary Scholarships.

The OU joined the Cara network in 2020 and is currently providing fellowships to at-risk academics at the OU.

If you are a scholar at risk or would like to find out more about Cara, please contact

Migration and forced displacement are key areas of focus for cross-disciplinary research at the OU, where important issues and challenges related to forced migration and sanctuary seekers are addressed both theoretically and through engagement with local, national, and international organisations. Projects at the OU aim to build capacity among organisations to address the skills needs of forced migrants. Another strand focuses on integration and citizenship. On the International Development and Inclusive Innovation (IDII) research page, you will find some of the recent and ongoing projects undertaken by the OU.

Some more recent examples of research and engagement include:

Sanctuary Scholarships Project: Researching transitions to distance and online higher education with students from refugee backgrounds
The Sanctuary Scholarship Project is set to enhance teaching and learning at the OU, and aims to improve the experience and outcomes of our first and subsequent incoming groups of Sanctuary students that join the OU from October 2022.
Starting in the 22/23 academic year, through the Open Futures Sanctuary Scholarships programme that was recently launched, the OU is providing 12 fully funded scholarships for people seeking asylum, refugees, and forced migrants. In addition, the OU is providing fee waivers to 34 students[Ko2] [Ko3] on the Access Modules. This project is innovative and timely as it enables the testing of a new institutional initiative/strategy linked to this particular group of students, as well as investigating change in practice. It will lead to evidence to inform future developments at the OU, drawing on consultation within units across the OU, as well as participation and co-creation of work with students themselves. The scholarship project is set to examine the experiences of the students during the first year of their OU studies. We will follow students and examine progression and enablers and barriers they have in their academic journeys. The project will lead to three outcome changes needed to achieve improvement of teaching and learning at the OU:

  1. Increased understanding of appropriate/preferred provision around Sanctuary scholarships for students from refugee backgrounds to promote equality, diversity and inclusion;
  2. Strengthened evidence to inform strategic planning and change at the OU with regards to existing policies and the learning experience from students from refugee backgrounds
  3. Improved institutional environment for an effective, coordinated, and evidence-based provision for students from refugee backgrounds.

Covid-19 Chronicles from the Margins

Covid-19: Chronicles from the Margins investigates the pandemic crisis from the perspectives of asylum seekers and refugees, using creative methods and celebrating artful acts of resistance to marginalisation. The project, which is funded by the OU and the International Institute of Social Studies (Netherlands), involves co-creating a digital archive and exhibition that chronicles the impact of Covid-19 through the use of smartphone tools.

The Refugees’ Educational Resources project

The Refugees’ Educational Resources (RefER) project was carried out between June and November 2018. The aim was to provide an understanding of the learning resources offered by organisations working with refugees and asylum seekers in the UK, and to advise the OU on how it might repackage existing resources, or create additional ones, to directly respond to the needs of those organisations and the individuals they support.

Participating organisations included national and local charities and other universities in the UK. The services they provide include counselling, English language teaching, legal advice, and settling-in support. One of the key outputs from the project is a Resources Audit, which provides brief descriptions of, and links to, over 500 relevant free, online resources.

For refugees and asylum seekers, these resources cover topics such as English language skills, digital literacy skills, and study skills. For frontline staff, main topics include information about legal aspects of migration in the different nations of the UK, guidelines for working in the voluntary sector, and resources on inclusion and equality. Resources are found predominantly on OpenLearn, the OU’s free learning platform, but also on many other platforms and sites.

Read the final report from the RefER project.

Year of Mygration

In 2019, as the OU entered its 50th year, it embarked on the ambitious first-of-its kind ‘Year of Mygration’ project, to showcase and celebrate the experiences, work and contributions of migrants and sanctuary seekers at the OU, both past and present. The project was developed as a collaboration between two areas of the OU – Citizenship and Governance and International Development and Inclusive Innovation Strategic Research. The project team shared a reflection every day from Monday to Friday for 50 weeks of the year, to emphasise that everyone is affected by migration. Reflections were shared in the form of a short blog, a podcast or archive clip, a tweet, or an article. The reflections were numbered from one to 250, partly so that anyone can start their own Year of Mygration in any year and at any point in any year. This remarkable project produced several fascinating stories, reports and collaborations and it is hoped that others will further innovate and emulate this initiative in the coming years.

Connected learning in crisis contexts: educators’ perspectives on needs and support in the context of refugee tertiary education 

English language skills are a significant barrier to tertiary education for refugees. This is due to minimal English Language Teaching (ELT) in countries of origin and further perpetuated by a lack of access to quality language learning opportunities for refugees during displacement. It is critical that teachers in crisis contexts are supported to improve and expand ELT. The overall aim of the research into this area is to contribute to the evidence base on how to improve ELT in crisis contexts, building on existing research and programmes and drawing on connected learning programmes in Jordan and Lebanon. The specific objective of this research is to provide further understanding of how to contextualise ELT innovations and development at scale. Qualitative methodologies and participatory approaches will be used, with refugee teachers as peer-researchers. Such research can generate rich insights on needs and support in the context of refugee tertiary education, and ensure that the views of marginalised and disadvantaged groups can be heard.

The Open University hosts many events relevant to Sanctuary students and at-risk academics. Examples include:

Sanctuary Series: Displacement, Education, Integration
In 2022, The Sanctuary Advisory Network coordinated a short series of seminars covering the themes of Displacement, Education and Integration.

The first seminar, War in Ukraine and forced displacement in Europe, invited guest speaker Kai Frithjof Brand-Jacobsen, who is regarded as one of the leading pioneers, innovators, and practitioners in the field of peacebuilding, security and addressing challenging and complex conflicts and crisis in the world today. Our speaker gave a vital overview of the true disruption of people’s lives in Ukraine, and the coming together of humanitarian coordination that he and his team have experienced on the border between Ukraine and Romania. With increased violence and targeting of civilian infrastructure, those on the ground have seen hundreds of thousands of people fleeing Ukraine and crossing borders, not knowing where they’re going next, full of fear and uncertainty. Kai spoke of the extraordinary solidarity-based response being provided within Romania; highlighting the internally displaced people of Ukraine and psychosocial support for trauma work as critical areas of need. You can watch the recording in full on the FASS YouTube channel.

The second seminar featured 25-minute art-film, The Migration Blanket, followed by a 30-minute Q&A with the film maker, award-winning artist and women's rights activist, Salma Zulfiqar. The film gives vulnerable refugee and marginalised women a voice, empowering them to take climate action. Women in camps, orphanages, and other temporary accommodation, participated in workshops in 2021 to produce the artwork for the film. The session is not recorded, but you can follow Salma Zulfiqar on social media, who often shows the film at other events.

Improving Access to Higher Education and Employment for Forced Migrants

In June 2021, the OU held a conference in partnership with Swansea City of Sanctuary – Improving Access to Higher Education and Employment for Forced Migrants. The conference brought together policymakers, asylum seekers and refugees, researchers and academics, and community organisations to debate and discuss issues relating to access, at a time when Swansea celebrated a decade of becoming a City of Sanctuary, and the Welsh Government’s Nation of Sanctuary Refugee and Asylum Seeker Plan was due for release. With a variety of stakeholders in attendance, the barriers faced by forced migrants in accessing HE and employment were identified, and potential solutions were put forward to overcome those barriers. The report following this conference is underway and will be uploaded to this page in October.

Pathways into Study pilot project – Scotland

In January 2021, the OU’s Access Participation and Success Scotland team invited third sector and community groups that support forced migrants in Scotland to a virtual roundtable event called Open to People. They were invited to contribute ideas for how the OU in Scotland could support their work and partner with them to improve learning opportunities for these communities. The project builds on the ideas and contributions of participants, who identified key gaps in provision that the OU’s expertise in online learning could help address. 

Pathways into Study will provide study support from an OU tutor to develop readiness for HE, alongside guidance on course choice and funding options. This strand is targeted at people who have language fluency but may need to develop English for academic purposes and skills for online learning, with an initial cohort of 20 participants. The OU partnered with the Scottish Refugee Council and Bridges Programmes to identify and recruit participants for the programme which started October 2021. The Pathways into Study programme will help develop the skills and confidence participants may need to succeed in HE. Learner journeys will be tracked through the programme and into formal study with the OU. The learning from the pilots will inform how to best respond and scale up the project in future years. It will also help identify what works and how the model can be adapted to meet the challenges that impact the most disadvantaged groups from accessing education or employment in Scotland. The pathway piloted in 2021/22 will form part of an online toolkit to be hosted on OpenLearn, along with learning, case studies, co-created resources and other outputs from the project.

The OU’s Sanctuary Advisory Network, chaired by Dr Neil Graffin, comprises colleagues from across the institution, united in their commitment to work towards creating a place of sanctuary and safety at the university. Below are the current working group members:

Ahmad al-Rashid

Mahlea Babjak

Anna Brooks

Alayla Castle-Herbert

Koula Charitonos

Róise Connolly

Lidia Dancu

Marie Gillespie

Neil Graffin

Suki Haider

Shannon Martin

Rebecca Murray

Fidele Mutwarasibo

Hazel Nixon

Olwyn O’Malley

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