Migration has been at the heart of discourse for many students. When it was first announced that The University of St Andrews had attained sanctuary status, it seemed like the entire student population were commending a watershed moment for migrants in Scotland.
In St Andrews there is plenty of room and willingness in this small town to talk about forced migrants and asylum seekers. What many people may not know is the collaborative efforts of university staff and the forming of the St Andrews Refugees and Forced Migrants Network, who produced the framework and implemented strategies for this.
Professor Rebecca Sweetman, an Archaeology and Ancient History professor at the University, led the efforts which culminated in the University being awarded sanctuary status by Universities of Sanctuaries.
Professor Sweetman discussed with The Saint the path to achieving such a title and the many people involved in the process. She first addressed what the public acknowledgement meant in practical terms.
She explained, “The recognition means that the University has signed up for a commitment to maintain scholarships, to provide access to the University for displaced people, to generally embed education and provide support for people who wind up at the University, but also to provide broader information on what it means in terms of displaced people, and the importance of widening access for displaced people.”
The University of St Andrews has become the second university in Scotland to receive this award, following The University of Edinburgh. The launching of two new annual Sanctuary Scholarships will provide people with refugee status, asylum seekers and those with discretionary leave, tuition waivers and living cost grants.
Professor Sweetman reflected on the various initiatives such as Council for At Risk Academics (CARA) and the St Andrews Education for Palestinian Students (STEPS) scholarship for Palestinian students which the University already has in place to support incoming students who are at risk.
“The University already does quite a lot in terms of academics. But part of the issue is that it’s not widely known about. Some people will know about CARA but they might not know about the STEPS scholarship. So, there was a need to pull the various opportunities together.”
She continued with the newest developments which extend on this previous work, “The Vice-Principal International Brad MacKay, brought a group of staff members together in November 2018 who had been in touch with him to see what could be done in terms of responding to some of the issues faced by displaced people, academics at risk across the world, and whether there was a way of helping to support people in these situations.
“He asked us to talk about what we felt would be good ways forward. And so we put a committee together — a network of people who were interested in trying to do something more substantial for a wider range of people who were displaced or at risk in their home countries. It’s called the University of St Andrews Refugee and Forced Mobility Network.”
After producing a comprehensive and accessible website for the network (created by Mary Woodcock Kroble), Professor Sweetman and her colleagues decided to engage their attention in a more extensive project. (The website can be found at this address: https://refugee-network.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk)
Speaking of this, she said, “It was a huge team effort which involved colleagues across the University, in particular, from the Global Office, Registry and IR. Natasha Saunders and her colleagues collated the information on what people are doing in terms of research and teaching to do with forced migration. Out of that, I then started to look at what we could do more substantially. It was all fine to be part of CARA but there were more specific things that we could do at aground level.“
One of those was to get a commitment from the University to support becoming a University of Sanctuary. And so we put a paper together which out-lined the requirements to become a University of Sanctuary.”
Under this commitment, various university staff members were contacted and began to collaborate with the work being done.
“We had to get a commitment from the Heads of Academic Schools that they would support our endeavours and at Academic Council they agreed to support displaced scholars and those at risk through various means including CARA and the Scholars at Risk programme.
“On that basis, with the knowledge that the principal and every single head of school was in support of the general idea, it was possible to progress and begin to look at what could be done in terms of practical aims.”
Professor Sweetman looked back fondly at the resulting group cohesion to achieve such a feat.
“There was huge support across the University for it. It would never have worked if, for example, the Registrar didn’t think it was a good idea or if the fees team didn’t think it was a good idea, or if the Principal didn’t think it was a good idea. But fundamentally, you approach people and you say ‘Look, how about this?’ and they say, ‘Yes, we can make it work.’ And that’s one of the beauties of St Andrews, that everywhere you go in the University people say ‘Yes,we can make it work.’”
It took nine months for the movement to fully evolve, but at the beginning Professor Sweetman noted that there was no mechanism in Scotland.
“Actually, it turned out well as very early in 2019, Gün Orgunwas appointed as head of City of Sanctuary for Scotland. She has been incredibly supportive in our endeavours. She’s working tirelessly to try and pull Scottish universities together and to make them more accessible for displaced people. Once Gün was appointed, we were able to collaborate in all of the processes and all of the requirements that we needed to become a University of Sanctuary.”
The application process contains a detailed criterion expected of each university which is assessed during a visit to the establishment by an appraisal group. The review meeting was held in St Andrews on Friday 30 August 2019. Amongst these requirements was the necessity to have a three-year plan for the future of maintaining and developing existing plans.
Professor Sweetman noted a five-year plan put in place for the application. The plan comprised of key strategic aims of the network regarding tuition fees and scholarships.
Professor Sweetman said, “We needed to provide scholarships for students and through the work of a team led by Sam Lister (Director of the Global Office), we now have two new scholarships for students who are either asylum seekers or have already got refugee status. Altogether there are now four scholarships.”
She continued, “The other keyt hing which we realised very early on, were the problems of the classification of asylum seekers or refugees as International. This is something that RASA have been working hard on highlighting. And actually, we originally thought that was going to be a major stumbling block but some amazing staff were able to make it work.”
Professor Sweetman praised the collaborative work of her colleagues,mentioning with affection Sam Lister, head of the Global Office, Marie-Noel Earley, the Registrar, and Angela Johnston and Michelle Goodwin from scholarships and fees.
“The four of them worked so hard to look at all sorts of different ways to be able to classify our students in need as Home Students, and therefore, they qualify for a fee waiver, so they pay as if they were Scottish students.”
Professor Sweetman’s own dedication to the cause came to her last year, when she was living in Greece with her two sons.
“I was working in a squat in a disused school known as the fifth school, which became a home in 2016 for displaced people, essentially people from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and it was for refugee families — who had come to Athens, some with papers,some without papers but for the most part, without anything very much.”
“It was to entertain the kids, to give the parents a break, and to give them some sense of security and an awareness that people were looking out for them.”
Professor Sweetman noted however that the Greek Government had recently decided to evict all of the organised squats in Athens, citing John Psaropoulos’ article “Refugee Eviction Causes Fury in Greece”.
“They bussed families down to a camp outside of Corinth, where the kids have been taken out of schools that they were well-integrated in. The schools that these kids were in have written open letters to the government saying, ‘We want our children back, we want our classmates back.’”
“By moving them out of the squat and then putting them inside this camp in Corinth they have nothing. They don’t have access to any kind of education, very little support, and I think that it’s a very short-sighted move on the part of the government. They are bringing in new legislation for the forced migrants and asylum seekers. It’s not a very good situation there at the moment.”
Having had this exposure, Professor Sweetman has seen first-hand the influence it can have on her approach to life. She drew attention to future plans of integrating this issue into her academic work.
She said, “I am planning on offering a new Honours module on forced migration from antiquity through to contemporary times, that will include exile. I’ve written a little bit about exile in the Roman period and I have looked at situations where exile can be seen as a positive thing. That is to say, when exiles become diaspora and the positive impacts exiles can make on local communities.“
And relating to this, this was one of the things that was most upset-ting about the recent evictions of the Athenian squats. The idea of community is intrinsically Greek, and the eviction of the communities of refugees in the squat is at odds with this ethos.”
Likewise, many other staff members from the Classics department have similar motivations.
“I have colleagues here in Classics,who are developing their teaching and research to highlight key social issues by making Classics more relevant. And, Classics, because it’s so naturally interdisciplinary, is an ideal vehicle for doing that.”
Professor Sweetman also commented that she was looking forward to working with RASA more in the future as part of the Network.
“I think RASA are a very powerful group and they do fantastic work in terms of coordinating students to be very practically useful, for example, with the conversation work that they are doing in Kirkcaldy.”
She also stressed the importance of everyone’s involvement and duty to one another, and the relevance of why now is the time to act.
“It’s everyone’s responsibility. It’s very easy to stick your head in the sand and pretend that these things aren’t happening, but I think that the world is in a critical position at the moment and we need to be looking after people as much as we can, be they elderly or forced migrants.”
Professor Sweetman spearheaded an exceptional step for the University, and the joint efforts of staff have unlocked doors to opportunities that a year ago, no one dared to commit themselves to. It does show that with a selfless attitude and a mindset for change, discourse on the very things we study here in this small town, can materialise.
The Principal’s Office is organising the official award ceremony, which will be held on Tuesday 26 November during the World Access to Higher Education Day.