You are here

  1. Home
  2. University to become a Sanctuary for forced migrants

University to become a Sanctuary for forced migrants

8 December 2021

Photo of three migrants carrying their belongings

The Open University has applied for recognition as a University of Sanctuary, pledged to offer welcome and safety to those forced to flee their home countries owing to conflict or persecution.

The university’s senior management signed off the application on 18 November, along with a package of support measures including scholarships for forced migrants, and a scheme to support Afghan academics at risk following the fall of Kabul.

It commits the university to implementing a range of measures to support forced migrants, which include:

  • a three-year scholarship scheme starting 2022, offering a minimum of 12 scholarships per year at undergraduate and postgraduate level
  • each of the university’s four faculties to host an at-risk Afghan scholar for two years, and the university to work with the Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA) to build a long-term strategy to offer sanctuary to such academics
  • courses in English language and other skills to support the transition to higher education offered on the university’s free learning portal OpenLearn
  • a ‘flag’ system that will enable the university to identify and appropriately support students from a forced migrant background

The measures are based on an in-depth study conducted by a pan-university team led by Professor Marie Gillespie, a leading researcher in migrant cultures and forced migration.

The study identified forced migrants as a diverse group which cuts across the university’s established minority and disadvantaged categories, and experiences multiple barriers to accessing higher education.

Forced migrants are, for example, more likely to live in lower-income areas, be from Black, Asian or minority ethnic groups, be separated from family, have been in care or be carers, and have mental health issues and disabilities related to trauma.


The university also organised a conference in partnership with Swansea City of Sanctuary earlier this year to look at improving access to higher education and employment for forced migrants. Its findings are published in the conference report.

The decision to seek University of Sanctuary status is ‘fantastic news’, said Professor Gillespie. "The Open University has committed to a strategic goal to implement policies and practices that will enable us to deliver a culture of welcome to forced migrants, recognising them as a ‘super-disadvantaged’ group that cuts across the university’s existing access and participation strategy.

“Our reach and scale makes us ideal for this role, we encompass all four UK nations and have learning material accessible from anywhere in the world.

“The Open University’s ethos is ‘open to all’. What better way to fulfill this than by serving the needs of the most vulnerable members of society?”

A decision on the university’s application is expected in January.

Find out more

More information can be found at Sanctuary at The Open University.

If you are a forced migrant, or have an interest in this topic, you can email your enquiries to

The conference which played an important role in the Open University’s Sanctuary application, was funded by a generous legacy from a forced migrant, Heidi Hillman. Heidi was a Jewish refugee who fled Nazi-occupied Austria as a young child in 1939 and found a new life in the UK, where she worked and raised a family and, at the age of 63, graduated with a degree from The Open University. Watch a short film about her remarkable life here.

Image: Climatalk .in CC BY-NC 2.0

Share this page:

Contact us

To find out more about our work, or to discuss a potential project, please contact:

International Development Research Office
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
The Open University
Walton Hall
Milton Keynes
United Kingdom

T: +44 (0)1908 858502