Jamal and his siblings were the first in their family to finish school due, in no small part, to their mother’s belief in the transformative power of education. Jamal thrived in his studies, excelling particularly at science.
From a young age, Jamal was acutely aware of the lack of healthcare in his home country. When this absence of medical help led to the premature death of his pregnant aunt, he became more determined than ever to become a doctor. Winning a scholarship to study medicine put this dream within his grasp.
But, in his first term at university, Jamal’s home country descended into civil war. He was forced to abandon his studies, return to his family and ultimately flee the country. Following uncertainty and trauma in a neighbouring country in the region, 22 year old Jamal arrived in the UK by himself and claimed asylum.
As soon as he was granted refugee status, Jamal made contact with every medical school he could think of. How, he asked them, could he get back on track to fulfil his dream of becoming a doctor. They all said the same thing: his school-leaving qualifications from his home country were meaningless in the UK.
Armed with the universities’ list of acceptable qualifications, Jamal contacted his local further education college to find out how to acquire them. This led to further discouragements: he was, they explained, too old for A-levels and his case was too complex. Furthermore, when they heard that he had started university in another country, they told him he was too qualified for them to help.
Disappointed but not defeated, Jamal did not give up. Having discovered a one-year foundation course which was an acceptable qualification for medical school, Jamal successfully applied for it and managed to secure a scholarship to take up his place. Finally the future seemed brighter.
By then, however, Jamal had been out of formal education for over five years and he struggled to keep up with the other students. His story was too painful to share and he felt socially isolated from his peers, all of whom were all much younger and from wealthy overseas backgrounds. The isolation and academic pressure began to take their toll on his mental health and - although Jamal ultimately achieved the high grades he needed to apply for medical school - he still remembers that year as one of crippling anxiety and loneliness.
Having poured his time, passion and energy into securing an acceptable qualification, Jamal applied with excitement to British medical schools. Then came the next set back: one by one they all rejected him without an interview.
Disheartened but determined, Jamal contacted them to ask if they had taken into account his unique circumstances - his forced displacement as a teenager and its significant negative impact on his education and mental health. Although widening participation (WP) schemes exist to increase access to university, at least two of the medical schools explained that Jamal didn’t meet their scheme’s criteria, such as living in a sufficiently deprived postcode or attending a British state school in a particular area. For all his efforts, Jamal’s hopes for becoming a doctor seemed at an end.
Jamal's story is not unique. In fact, his story exemplifies the barriers that so many young refugees face as they try to access higher education in the UK as well as the extraordinary resilience and tenacity so many display in the process.
Research conducted by Refugee Education UK (REUK) for Unicef UK in 2020 found that entry requirements that are challenging for young people with disrupted educational histories to meet form one of the key barriers for refugees wanting to study in the UK, with evidence of prior learning being a major challenge. As one young person said: ‘We have done it, but we can’t prove it.’ Another systemic barrier is institutional reluctance from universities: many refugees report feeling misunderstood and unwelcome when they interact with university admissions departments. Underpinning these factors are the overarching issues common to most refugees of poor mental health, poverty and disadvantage and in particular lack of support and encouragement. As Jamal himself put it:
“There needs to be much more support for refugees who didn’t go through the normal routes [to get to university]. These people fall into the gaps and cracks of this rigid process and are struggling to navigate through this confusing and inflexible system.”
Fortunately Jamal’s story does have a happy ending.
With support from REUK, Jamal asked King’s College London to review his refused application under their contextual admissions policy. Having done this, King’s College invited him to an interview and, after meeting this remarkable young man for themselves, offered him a place to study medicine.
We know what hinders young refugees from accessing university and we also know what helps. One key supportive factor is a flexible, empathetic and supportive approach from universities - just like the one displayed by the King's College widening participation team. Without this, the door to Jamal’s future would have remained firmly closed.
“After a long and exhausting journey I am glad that I am finally able to study what I have always wanted to study and I look forward to starting my medical course and enjoying university life for the next 5 or 6 years!”
REUK’s advice sheets give more information about practical steps that universities can take to support other refugee students like Jamal.