On the 25th January 2017, the Bishop of Durham, Rt. Revd. Paul Butler, co-sponsored an amendment to the Higher Education and Research Bill, which would ‘allow all refugees resettled to the UK…to access student finance and home fees.’ The amendment was led by Lord Dubs and Viscount Younger of Leckie responded on behalf of the Government. The amendment was withdrawn after debate.
The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, it is my privilege to have added my name to this amendment. My favourite Christmas card of the past year came from a refugee from Burundi. Last summer, when I visited Burundi, I accessed the rector of the university that she had had to flee and arranged for her qualifications from that university to be released and forwarded to her in this country so that she could commence university, which she will do in September this year. It was a huge relief to her because without that piece of paper she would have had to return and undertake A-levels. In her Christmas card she not only thanked me, but said that it was being able to access higher education straightaway that made her feel welcome and wanted, and that we believed in integrating her into our country.
Amendment 443, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, would allow all refugees resettled to the UK, including the Syrian refugees being resettled at present, as well as those young people who have made applications for asylum who are granted a form of leave other than refugee status, to access student finance and home fees. It is an important amendment because it addresses one element of how we as a country treat people to whom we have said we will offer protection. Currently, individuals with refugee status can access student finance and qualify for home fee status from the moment they are awarded their protection. However, those with a slightly different status—that of humanitarian protection —are treated differently. Those with humanitarian protection have to be able to show at the start of the academic year that they have been ordinarily resident for at least three years to be able to receive financial support. This is the case despite people granted humanitarian protection having been found to be at real risk of suffering if they were to return to their country of origin. This includes risk of the death penalty, unlawful killing and torture.
The group most impacted by this are the Syrian refugees currently being resettled under the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, as these refugees are granted humanitarian protection rather than refugee status. The result of this is that a young Syrian refugee who arrived in the UK would not qualify for student finance until the start of the academic year in 2020. The only exception to this, as the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, pointed out, is in Scotland.
I currently serve on the inquiry of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees looking at the experience of refugees once they are settled in their status. We have heard from many witnesses, including refugees themselves, that there are several barriers to successful integration, and one of the most often cited is access to education. Amendment 443 would remove at least one of the barriers.
Subsection (2)(a) of the proposed new clause would ensure that all resettled refugees, no matter what status they were given or where in the UK they were placed, could access student support immediately. Subsection (2)(b) would make student finance available for those who were granted humanitarian protection after making an application for asylum. For people granted humanitarian protection after applying for asylum, their future is clearly in the United Kingdom, so they should be allowed to access university education in order to build their lives here and to be able fully to contribute to society.
Subsection (2)(b) would also provide access to student finance and home fee status to people who had applied for asylum and then been granted another form of immigration leave. Again, the Government have accepted that the immediate future of such individuals is in the UK and so they should be given every opportunity to contribute and develop, yet they face significant hurdles in doing so. This is because, in 2012, the Government changed the rules so that potential university students in this situation could no longer access student finance and would be reclassified as international students, meaning that they would face much higher fees.
The Supreme Court found these rules discriminatory and, as a result, a new criterion of “long residence” was introduced. However, young people who have gone through the asylum process, including those children who arrive as unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, are unlikely to meet the long residency criteria and so will have to watch their school peers go off to university, leaving them behind.
This amendment is not about creating special circumstances for refugees and other people who have arrived in the UK seeking asylum. Instead, it is about removing the existing barriers that prevent young people who came to the UK seeking protection and who are capable of attending university fulfilling their potential and gaining the skills and knowledge that will then allow them to participate fully in, and contribute to, the United Kingdom. I hope that the Minister will offer some support and agreement for the amendment, because it would help refugees feel more welcome.
Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con, Minister) [extract]: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for bringing forward this amendment. I am very sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, is not in his place. I think the House is aware, as certainly I am, that he has worked assiduously in support of the Syrians. This is an important issue, and I realise that it is also a sensitive one, but it is already addressed within the student support regulations. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, talked about the importance of the UK being a warm welcoming country. I absolutely agree and I will make some very strong points on that matter in a subsequent debate, which I hope will take place today.
I am pleased to say that those who come to this country and obtain international protection are already able to access student support. Our regulations have for some time included provision for those granted refugee status or humanitarian protection and their family members. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham said, people who enter the UK under the Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme are granted humanitarian protection. Like UK nationals, they are therefore eligible to obtain student support and home fee status after only three years’ residence in the UK. Persons on the programme are not precluded from applying for refugee status if they consider they meet the criteria. As Home Office officials said at the Public Accounts Committee on 7 November 2016, the department is aware of the issue and keeps it under active review. I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, understands that. I reassure the House that I have also had discussions with Home Office officials on this important matter, so there is joined-up thinking—if I may put it that way—between the DfE and the Home Office.
Those with refugee status are uniquely allowed to access student support immediately, a privilege not afforded to UK nationals or those granted other forms of leave. Recently, the Supreme Court upheld the Government’s policy of requiring most persons, including UK citizens, to be ordinarily lawfully resident in the UK for at least three years immediately prior to starting their course in order to be eligible for student support. It also upheld the Government’s case that it was legitimate to target the substantial taxpayer subsidy of student loans on those who are likely to remain in England—or at least the UK—indefinitely, so that the general public benefits of their tertiary education will ensue to the country’s advantage. The second part of the amendment would break that long-established policy by extending support to failed asylum seekers who, it has been decided, do not need our protection but have been granted temporary leave to remain in the UK. In other words, these are persons who have only recently established a connection to the UK, which may well prove temporary. This amendment would therefore allow people who may subsequently be required to leave the country to access taxpayer funding for their study.
I realise that this is a sensitive issue but I hope that with these explanations the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.