Discriminatory education system for students seeking asylum: Sasan’s Appeal

The fee status for student asylum seekers is discriminatory and should be challenged. The few asylum seekers wanting to study at Universities in the UK face huge problems because, unless they have refugee status and permanent leave to remain in the UK, Universities have to treat them as international students and charge them accordingly. A few Universities (Manchester and Leeds) are charging them home fees (£9000 per year) and making up the difference themselves. In Sheffield a proposal to treat asylum seekers as home students is soon starting its slow journey through the University committees. It will be designed for new students.

I am the son of an asylum seeker who fled Iran in 2007, when I was 12. Since then we have lived in Sheffield. In 2011, my father was given 3 years’ discretionary leave to remain. (If the Home Office do not recognise a person as a refugee or a person who qualifies for humanitarian protection, they may give him/her another type of temporary permission to stay in the UK which they call Discretionary Leave. A person given this status is then permitted to get a job.) He has to re-apply in June 2014, when he will probably get another 3 years’ discretionary leave (in 2017 he should get permanent leave). I can’t return to Iran to study.

In 2011, I applied to Sheffield to study medicine. I used to accompany my father to the GP to interpret for him (like most failed asylum seekers he had major health problems), and saw how doctors have to work out what is wrong with patients and how to treat them, and that seemed a really good career. I also started shadowing a specialist in Northern General, and I continued after I entered Medical School in September 2012.

I started knowing I would have to pay international student fees (£16000 each year for the first two, £30000 for the next three) and hoping to raise the money or persuade the University to treat me as a home student. (My family hasn’t got anything like that sort of money. My father has struggled to open an Iranian Restaurant here in Sheffield but it has not made anything like the money we would need to do more than part-fund my studies.) You can imagine how stressful that makes studying.

I paid my first year’s fees with my family’s savings (£3000), a grant of £1000 from the University of York, and a loan from English friends. With the help of Dr Roger Ellis, Quaker faith advisor to the University, I started a campaign to get the University to change its mind about me. My situation must be almost unique, so the University wouldn’t be creating much of a precedent in bending the rules for me. Dr. Ellis tried unsuccessfully to find how many asylum seekers are studying in Sheffield (they are lumped together in the records with overseas students). I also tried, unsuccessfully, to interest wealthy individuals and charitable organisations in my plight.

I was able to begin my second year because the University decided to subsidise me, leaving me and my parents to pay the balance charged to home students. Probably this happened because the Medical School was changing its degree structures, and if I had had to withdraw at the end of my first year I’d have had to start all over again when I returned, and would have lost the money I’d so far spent.

The University have said that if my status changes, they will treat me from then on as a home student:  meantime, no more help can be expected from them.

For my third year’s fees I have applied to the Westheimer Trust, a charity I hadn’t heard about before, which is very sympathetic to the plight of asylum seekers in higher education. I haven’t yet heard if my application has been successful.

If it is, I will take a year out after my third year and work to fund myself through my fourth year (2016-17). In 2017 my father will hopefully receive to be getting permanent leave.

If it isn’t…

My story sheds light on the very real difficulties that students from families seeking asylum in the UK. Asylum seekers seek protection, yet face discrimination in the UK’s education system and this needs to be challenged. The University of Sheffield has the opportunity to lead the change.

You can find out more from me  (spanbehchi1@sheffield.ac.uk ) or Dr. Ellis (Roger.Ellis@sheffield.ac.uk).

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