Sanctuary Seekers’ Unit

Distance learning opportunities

The UNHCR reported that at the start of 2023, 110 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide. An increasing body of research demonstrates that, while access to primary and secondary education for displaced people has been prioritised, access to Higher Education (HE) remains limited, being described as a ‘broken pipeline’ for refugees (Dryden-Peterson and Giles, 2010) and a neglected aspect of education in emergencies (Connected Learning for Refugees, 2020).

The most recent data from the UNHCR shows that only 6% of the world’s refugees have access to HE, as compared with the figure of more than 40% for non-refugees. To attempt to redress this, the University of Leicester, along with many other education providers worldwide, has signed up to the UN’s 15by30 pledge, whereby organisations commit to increase this figure from 6% to 15% by 2030.

Distance Learning (DL) is an increasingly important way of creating access to higher education for forcibly displaced people, connecting people wherever they are in the world to accredited programmes and facilitating a global exchange of knowledge.

Since 2018 the School of History Politics and International Relations (HyPIR) has been offering a range of DL sanctuary scholarships for a number of its Master’s programmes, providing free access (i.e. fee waivers) to postgraduate education for students who have experienced forced displacement. This was the first such initiative by any university in the UK. These DL sanctuary scholarships have proved to be in high demand - in the four-year period from 2018 to 2022, 97 applications were received, and 29 scholarships were awarded.

Distance learning provides a valuable way of reducing the barriers to education faced by those who have been forcibly displaced. Increasing access to higher education benefits everyone: individuals, their communities, and the University. HyPIR’s fee waivers have helped to create a distinctive, inclusive, and global learning community, which includes people who have experienced displacement due to crisis or conflict. It is important not just that people who have experienced displacement can access education, but that they can contribute their knowledge and experiences – improving education for all.

Dr Helen Dexter

HyPIR’s DL Master’s sanctuary scholarships were also the subject of doctoral research carried out by Dr Gabi Witthaus, and a corresponding paper entitled 'Refugees and Online Engagement in Higher Education: A Capabilitarian Model'. As part of this doctoral research, Gabi gathered a number of powerful student testimonials, including the following from a student who successfully completed the programme while based in the Dzaleka Refugee Camp in Malawi:

I had a dream and the determination to study [in the UK] but the financial barrier was always there till the opportunity of this scholarship came up… As soon as I read about the Sanctuary Scholarship the University of Leicester was offering... I was so glad to know that my dreams would come true and I would be equipped with needed knowledge to help build up my country again.

Witthaus, 2023: 129

Since their beginnings in HyPIR, the DL Sanctuary Scholarships have now been extended to DL degree programmes in the Schools of Business, Law, Education, Museum Studies and Media, Communication and Sociology. The University has launched a new campaign to offer 100 DL Sanctuary Awards on a range of Master’s programmes over the three academic years spanning from 2023/24 to 2025/26.

Explore our DL Sanctuary awards

Explore our online RefugEAP Programme


Witthaus, G. (2023). Refugees’ Online Learning Engagement in Higher Education: A Capabilitarian Analysis. [Doctoral thesis, Lancaster University].

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