Refugees and asylum seekers are being wrongly turned away from some colleges because staff do not understand complex immigration rules, according to a report by the Refugee Council.
Based on a survey of 70 colleges and interviews with asylum seekers and refugees, the report concludes that colleges are often confused about asylum seekers' eligibility for courses: 24 per cent said they were not at all or only "a little" aware of the entitlements. The report also says that people are being turned away if they do not have the documentation usually required for enrolment, such as a passport, because staff are not familiar with refugee paperwork such as the Home Office's Standard Acknowledgement Letter.
The charity is calling for a simple way for colleges and individuals to check eligibility for courses. It also wants the right to education in England to be extended to match that on offer in Scotland and Wales: at the moment, the government chooses where to send asylum seekers, who then face unequal access to education.
"It is unjust that many asylum seekers and refugees face a lottery when applying for further education," said Lisa Doyle, advocacy manager at the Refugee Council and one of the authors of the report, entitled A Lot to Learn: refugees, asylum seekers and post-16 learning.
"While some learning providers are able to support this group to access the education they are entitled to, others are unaware of their needs and entitlements and are turning them away," she said. "This can't go on."
According to the Refugee Council, one Ugandan asylum seeker took six months to find a college where he could study an access to HE course and said he was often turned away. When he was unable to produce a national insurance number, admissions staff would ask him how he supported himself. "I would say, 'I'm an asylum seeker.' They would say, 'Oh, I'm sorry. You are not allowed.' And that's it," he said.
In fact, asylum seekers are generally eligible for education if they have been in the country for six months.
A Zimbabwean woman with a finance degree said she had been forced to take a literacy and numeracy course that she described as "a child's course". She was not able to study nursing, as she wished, because as an asylum seeker she could not carry out a work placement. She called the experience "heartbreaking". "I'm labelled, I feel I'm put in this bottle and told 'just stay here, you can't move'."
But the report also found a high degree of sympathy from staff in colleges, who had to negotiate a complex system with sometimes unfair rules. One student adviser told the authors: "The hardest part of my job is when I have to tell someone they aren't able to study. It's horrendous to have to say no to someone. They often cry and tell me that all they have heard since coming to UK is 'no'."