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Politics and International RelationsPart of Economic, Social and Political Science

Building Sanctuary at the University of Southampton: Insights from the Sanctuary@UniSouthampton Virtual Roundtable

Published: 19 October 2020
Sanctuary Poster

Tess Altman, University of Southampton

Why are Universities of Sanctuary important, and how can the University of Southampton become one? In Refugee Week 2020, a diverse roundtable discussed this question in front of a packed (virtual) audience nearing 100 attendees.

University of Sanctuary status is accredited by the UK charity City of Sanctuary since 2017. The status recognises good practice of universities in fostering inclusivity and awareness, involving commitments to welcome and support people fleeing conflict and persecution. 16 UK universities have Sanctuary status: Winchester is the first in South of England, most recently joined by Sussex.

Southampton is a City of Sanctuary, but does not yet have a University of Sanctuary. The energy at the roundtable highlighted the growing momentum to see that change. The six speakers hailed from academic, student, government, NGO, community and asylum-seeking backgrounds. The audience came from Southampton’s university and local community including NGOs, libraries, galleries and schools, and extended to universities and NGOs across the UK and Europe.

Chair, Dr Tess Altman commenced the meeting by noting it’s a global moment to reflect upon what we can do better to address inequality and racism, with movements such as Black Lives Matter and with more people seeking sanctuary from conflict and persecution than ever. Universities have a role and responsibility to widen participation in higher education.

We then heard from our speakers. Nicola Walters invoked the global right to education in Article 26 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and outlined the three core principles of Universities of Sanctuary: to LEARN (develop learning on migration and refugee issues, learn from people seeking sanctuary), EMBED (involve students, faculty, and management in a strategic plan), and SHARE (promote the university’s vision for sanctuary, share good practice). Professor Tony Kushner provided a vibrant photographic tour of Southampton’s migrant history and traditions of welcome, including the Huguenot Garden, the Jewish cemetery, Atlantic Park as the largest transit migrant camp in Europe, and the French Church. He emphasised the role of refugees in the University of Southampton's history since the 1930s, when refugee academics from Nazism such as prominent physicist Kurt Weissenberg were supported by the Academic Assistance Council. Maariyah Ahmed discussed Student Action for Refugees Southampton’s community events and 2019 Equal Access Campaign, advocating that universities remove financial barriers to education. As a person from a low socioeconomic background under-represented in the medical community, her tertiary education was made possible through BM6 offering support.

Mike Brown then spoke about CLEAR Project, a Southampton NGO advocating for and empowering people seeking asylum and refugees through support for health, education, employment, friendship, self-expression and belonging. Stating that multiculturalism is in Southampton’s DNA, he stressed the need for collaborations locally and nationally to change the climate for asylum seekers and refugees. Esther Adeleke shared her personal story of seeking asylum from Nigeria to the UK, where her claim is ongoing. Although she experienced stigma, depression and anxiety, she realised nothing would change unless she moved forward while waiting for her refugee status. After completing an Access to Education course, she received offers to study Mental Health Nursing at the Universities of Winchester and Southampton. While she was grateful to receive the Winchester Sanctuary Award, financial assistance to study at Southampton would have made life easier with her children and a sense of belonging to where she lives. Finally, Councillor Steve Leggett gave background into Southampton becoming a City of Sanctuary in 2017, highlighting the vital importance of having a University of Sanctuary as the university is an anchor institution for Southampton.

A lively audience Q&A was moderated by Professor David Owen and Dr Ignacia Arteaga. Questions were posed to the panel, on topics ranging from the technical (scholarship eligibility and university entrance requirements) to political (countering the hostile environment) to practical (how to become a University of Sanctuary) to moral (the university’s role in society). Speakers pointed to the availability of Access to Education courses, that City of Sanctuary works with university admissions to make eligibility criteria feasible, and that open days for refugees are conducted. They discussed the need for a whole-of-university, sustained approach to make sure that building sanctuary is a long-term culture shift. They emphasised the responsibility of universities as some of the biggest institutions in society to influence what things need to look like. Universities can look to each other as forces and benchmarks for good. For example, Russell Group universities should all offer Sanctuary scholarships.

Dr Terri Sandison gave closing remarks, noting that since Winchester started offering Sanctuary Awards in 2009 as one of the first universities in the country, they have had over 30 students, 5 awards per year, and 14 have already graduated. They have a staff –student network, a teacher education program, and a social work program. She stated universities should work together to widen access to higher education. Three percent of refugees enter higher education compared with a global average of 37 percent of people. In 2019, 20 UK universities signed a UNHCR pledge to get 15 percent of refugees globally into higher education by 2030.

The roundtable created awareness and momentum to springboard into concrete actions. A briefing based on the roundtable has been delivered to the University of Southampton’s senior management who have been receptive to working towards becoming a University of Sanctuary, and a working group has been formed comprised of students, staff, senior management, people with lived experience of seeking asylum, and local refugee organisations. We are very hopeful that the University of Sanctuary at Southampton will come to fruition in the near future.

The roundtable is now available to watch online.

Roundtable speakers:

Nicola Walters, South West Regional Coordinator for City of Sanctuary UK.

Professor Tony Kushner, Parkes Institute and History Department, University of Southampton.

Maariyah Ahmed, 2018/19 President, Student Action for Refugees Southampton. 

Mike Brown, Manager, CLEAR Project.

Esther Adeleke, Winchester Sanctuary Award recipient. 

Steve Leggett, Councillor for Freemantle.

Dr Terri Sandison, MBE, University of Winchester


Tess Altman, ESRC Research Fellow, Politics and International Relations, University of Southampton.

This roundtable was organised by Dr Tess Altman as part of her ESRC Research Fellowship, and made possible through support from the ESRC through the South Coast Doctoral Training Partnership. Tess would like to thank the speakers, the moderators Professor David Owen and Dr Ignacia Arteaga, and the event support team Jo Hazell and Dr Alexander Hay.

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