Colleges need to appoint a member of staff who understands migrant status issues, writes Vanessa Joshua
“I came out with the second highest grade in my whole sixth-form cohort. So imagine not being able to go to university and everybody asking you, ‘Oh! What uni are you going to?’… Mentally, it has a big impact on me:” Gabrielle, 24
Many young people across England are now well into their university journey after a challenging year last year.
The first two months are behind them, and some will be on a reading week ahead of Christmas as they catch up with the term’s assignments.
Unfortunately for many young people with insecure immigration status like Gabrielle (not her real name), such an opportunity has been closed off.
The Centre for Education and Youth published a report this year in collaboration with King’s College London called Higher Education on Hold.
It lays bare how the potential of hard-working, high-achieving young people with insecure immigration status is being squandered by a punitive immigration system, inflexible student finance, and poor advice and guidance.
Having overcome numerous hurdles in their personal lives, thousands of young people are needlessly prevented from accessing higher education each year.
This is despite many having lived in the UK since they were children.
These barriers are linked directly to their status as pupils with asylum status. Students with limited or indefinite leave to remain do not qualify for home status, except in specific circumstances.
Due to rules set out by the government in 2015, these pupils don’t qualify for home status and cannot access student finance.
Instead, they must pay tuition as an international student – with fees rising up to £30,000 per year.
Young people and practitioners shared the frustration and sense of hopelessness generated by navigating the immigration system.
A lack of knowledge or understanding was a constant theme throughout our research.
This is little surprise: our immigration system is designed to be opaque and, in some cases, punitive.
These young people and their carers often do not know their status or how it impacts their entitlement to apply to university, or to access financial support.
Experts we interviewed explained that status-related barriers often become apparent only once a pupil begins their university application.
Sometimes it only becomes apparent once they have already started their course, which can land unsuspecting young people in considerable debt.
Even when young people obtain legal, regularised status (such as limited leave to remain), they must hold it for three years before they can apply for student finance.
So rather than supporting young people to unleash their potential, we trap them in a waiting game, creating uncertainty that negatively impacts their mental health.
One young person said: “All I can say is we have a lot of anxiety, and we go through all this, being limited and being blocked and having all these obstacles.”
Greater knowledge of immigration statuses and their implications would mitigate some of these challenges.
It is of course not feasible to expect teachers to be well versed in complex immigration law and student finance rules.
However, sixth forms and colleges play a crucial role in young people’s transition to higher education.
Their support is vital. Therefore, post-16 settings should have at least one staff member with a basic understanding of different statuses and their implications for student finance.
But with their limited time and resources, they cannot do this work alone.
Practitioners and career advisors in FE and HE settings can access training on how immigration status affects student finance eligibility through the Student Loans Company.
The Department for Education sets and enforces the existing restrictions
I would also encourage senior leaders across all settings to reach out to organisations with expertise in this area, such as We Belong, a migrant youth-led charity.
Finally, the Department for Education sets and enforces the existing restrictions. To stop this, a change to eligibility rules is needed.
Together we can empower and support young people like Gabrielle to access higher education and realise their potential.
We just need to mirror the determination that carried them on their long journey to results day.