Can the international education sector do more to welcome refugees?

“Supporting vulnerable groups such as refugees is one way we can contribute… to the wider community”

Working in education we are uniquely placed to respond to a range of societal challenges, writes IDP  UK and US director Arlene Griffiths.  At times it can seem daunting to know where to begin in order to make a difference. Over the past two years IDP has developed a corporate social responsibility strategy, and after a few “false starts”, the aim to support refugees in south Wales led IDP to the Welsh Refugee Council. This experience shows the value of CSR, both to our sector and the wider community we operate in. 

We knew we wanted to support local refugees, and we had some ideas, but how to reach them? Then a colleague on his daily commute happened to walk passed the Welsh Refugee Council offices. This sparked a thought, which then led to tentative conversations with the WRC about their needs and where we might be able to support their work by drawing upon the employability skills within our team. A year on, and the impact that we have been able to make through our collaboration with the WRC has been life changing for myself, my team, but most importantly, the people we have been able to help.

We began small; piloting some initial workshops on CV writing and job applications, before progressing onto lessons in business English, personal branding tips and the use of LinkedIn as a vehicle to connect and build a professional network. We had some amazing participants that were fully committed to re-building their lives in the UK. They were well-qualified people with good English, hungry to learn new skills that make them ready for the workplace and attractive to UK employers or, in a number of cases, prepare them for UK universities to undertake further study.

This summer we were approached with an unexpected opportunity. The WRC partnered with Cardiff University to deliver a Refugee Summer School for 60 people and they wanted us to help deliver two sessions on applying to university. We were delighted to be involved but even more so to be able to attend  at the end of the Summer School programme. I was invited to say a few words at the graduation ceremony alongside a pre-recorded congratulation from Michael Sheen. So I can now claim that I have shared a stage with the latest in the pantheon of great Welsh actors – well, in a virtual sense at least.

If I had to single out one story that has left a lasting impression, it would be a young man from Sudan who is already a qualified Civil Engineer, Khalid. I am thrilled to say that he received two offers to undertake his Masters this September, and he is now preparing to relocate to Sheffield, who awarded him a more competitive scholarship. A couple of weeks ago he came to say goodbye, and we were able to donate a laptop to help with his studies. We have already planned to meet up when we next visit the university in November, and if any of our colleagues in the international office there are reading this, please keep an eye out for him.

I firmly believe that universities are engines for social change, equality and internationalisation. But in these times of increased scrutiny, a common accusation is that institutions have become  removed from the day-to-day challenges faced by the wider community. Supporting vulnerable groups such as refugees is one way we can contribute, as  within our universities we have a critical mass of talented and passionate individuals that can be mobilised.

I would like to finish by recognising the journeys we in the team have also been on through our connection with this work.  If you have thought about getting involved in this area, but have not been able to find the time or do not know how to, I would encourage you to go for it. It is just a question of taking that first step be it volunteering, offering work shadowing opportunities in your office or pushing for greater scholarship funding for refugees.  The first step is hardest but I can assure you it is worth it. This month we met with the CEO from the WRC and have agreed an even larger portfolio of workshops for this coming year.

We are also supporters of Student Action for Refugees, an organisation that partners with The National Union of Students  to coordinate the Equal Access campaign to ensure that people in the UK seeking refugee protection have equal access to higher education. You may also be interested to learn about the European Qualifications Passports for Refugees initiative.