24 Hours of Opening Doors

by Guest Blogger, 27 February 2019
Revolving doors at The Triangle building, Cambridge

Research Officer Sinéad Fitzsimons reveals how two events exploring access to education for migrants chimed with the theme of a recent speech by Group Chief Executive Saul Nassé.

Cambridge Assessment Group Chief Executive Saul Nassé's recent speech at the Education World Forum spoke about the three keys needed to unlock the door of education to all and, in turn, unlock the potential of the world’s children. The three keys to this being teachers, curriculum and technology.

As a member of the curriculum strand of the Assessment Research and Development (ARD) team at Cambridge Assessment, I am fortunate enough to be working on some of these projects that have the potential to significantly widen access to quality education. For example, we have recently been looking into education provisions for the growing number of displaced children around the world.

To bring further strength to this work, we are in the fortunate position to be able to draw from expertise within Cambridge Assessment, across the University as a whole and from external funds of knowledge within our greater network. To continue with Saul’s metaphor of doors, our work benefits from our access to a revolving door – where we can look inside, as well as outside our organisation, for the necessary expertise and perspectives to support our research and development projects. On reflection, it is only fitting that the Triangle (where I am based in Cambridge, UK) is laden with revolving doors (pictured above).

Over 24 hours I was able to step outside of Cambridge Assessment and get exposed to some of the expertise related to education for displaced children. My first stop within this 24 hour fact-finding whirlwind was a seminar at Cambridge University’s Faculty of History. The second stop brought me to London for the STAR/NUS Conference on Improving Access to Higher Education for Refugees and Asylum Speakers.


A view from history

Being a former history teacher and history major, I often turn to history when attempting to get a better understanding of something’s contextual nuances. So, when I learned that the Faculty of History’s Middle East History Group was conducting a seminar on the history of UNRWA’s (UN Relief and Works Agency) unique education system for Palestinian Refugees, I was eager to attend. As I entered Trinity College on Wednesday evening, I was not surprised to face a beautiful, historic 17th century style door as I entered the College building. Saul’s metaphor seemed eerily appropriate as this historic door was in fact gaining me access to a historical perspective.

The seminar was led by Dr. Anne Irfan, from the University of Sussex and the London School of Economics ad Political Science (LSE), who gave an excellent overview of the work of UNRWA starting in the 1940s: their aims, policy positions, political affiliations, as well as their successes and challenges. What became very clear to me is that firstly, the challenge of how to support refugee and asylum seekers in attaining good quality education is not a new challenge. The key questions relating to funding, curriculum decisions, the role of host nations and the uncertain longevity of educational provisions were just as present in the 1940s and 50s as they are today. Although the political landscape has changed and the demographic and circumstances of refugees are in some ways different, education is still seen to have the same value.

Some of the Palestinian attendees of the seminar were able to give insightful reflections about the lived reality of some of these historical policy decisions, as well as highlight some of the inaccuracies that UNRWA projects in their self-defined narrative. For example, one attendee pointed out that although UNRWA did offer education to young girls, it was initially only in domestic classes such as cooking and sewing, thus debunking the claim that UNRWA offered equal access to education since its inception. I left the seminar with a deeper understanding of the underlying and more persistent challenges related to education in this context. I also left with a broadened network of individuals with a wide variety of expertise who were very eager to assist with the work being done at Cambridge Assessment.

Saul Nasse speaking at the Education World Forum

Cambridge Assessment Group Chief Executive Saul Nassé gave a speech on the theme of opening doors in education at the Education World Forum in January 2019


Doors to Higher Education

The theme of equal access to education continued the next day when I attended the National Union of Students (NUS) and the Student Action for Refugees (STAR) Conference in London, entitled 'Improving Access to Higher Education for Refugees and Asylum Seekers'. As I left King’s Cross station and walked to the conference venue, I thought that surely there would be no metaphoric door that will link in today. But, as I approached the NCVO conference building, someone stopped and held the door open for me. As the day unfolded, I realised that this too was a metaphor for the growing community that is tirelessly and selflessly working together to open the door for refugees and asylum seekers to attend Higher Education.

The day started with a powerful opening address from Shakira Martin, President of the National Union of Students. She explained how her grandmother came to the UK as part of the Windrush generation and even though they were not refugees, they faced discrimination, racism and many closed doors. Martin argued that having access to education is central to breaking down these barriers, for eradicating discrimination, and deconstructing the institutionalised racism that still exists within many public spheres.

Emma Williams, CEO of STAR, then went on to discuss some of the recent policy decisions that have impacted student access to universities. For example, the introduction of 'immigrant bail' in 2018, which allowed the release of detained migrants but prevented them from studying. Thanks to the lobbying of STAR and others, this policy was changed, although individuals involved are still at risk of deportation if their education status is not correctly documented. This is only one of the many challenges that refugees and asylum seekers face in order to gain access to education. Financial constraints, language barriers, misinformation, lack of documentation to prove prior education and knowledge, as well as not understanding the admission process are just some of the other challenges that were touched upon. This linked to some of the work currently being done at Cambridge Assessment, where we are investigating possibilities to track the learning of displaced children, as well as how they can get credit for education they received in displaced contexts.

The morning also involved hearing from various university representatives on the good practice that is taking place at their universities. I was proud to know that the University of Cambridge is also offering scholarships for refugees and asylum seekers. Michael Stone from the Cambridge Trust was present at the conference and I was able to speak to him during one of the coffee breaks. He told me about the Cambridge Refugee Scholarship Programme and Rowan Williams Cambridge Studentships which are offered to students from areas of instability or conflict zones.

In the afternoon, I attended a workshop linked to creating pathways to support refugees and asylum seekers to gain successful entry to university. This was led by Dr. Aura Lounasmaa (University of East London/UEL) and Sahar Erfani (Birkbeck, University of London). Dr. Lounasmaa spoke about UEL’s OLIve programme, which is a ten week course designed to support refugees and asylum seekers in the UK. The course offers modules that support students to find out what skills and knowledge are needed to apply and be successful in Higher Education, such as English for academic writing, research skills, tutoring opportunities, and the structure of Higher Education learning.

Dr. Lounasmaa explained the origins of the course and the success it has had. She explained that students come from all over the UK to attend. The OLIve programme supports some of the challenges refugees and asylum seekers face, but not all. The challenges remain of how to recognise prior learning, of how to support students who have significant gaps in their education, and how to give students the confidence and resilience to want to take on the long and often frustrating journey of trying to get in the door of Higher Education. This is not to say that Higher Education is the only path to success, but the various pathways should be open for students to choose from. The workshop leaders discussed ways that some of these challenges can be lessened. What was central to this, however, was solutions being developed and supported by a variety of stakeholders – university admissions, government ministries, NGOs, the students and exam boards, to name a few.


How can Cambridge Assessment help?

Returning to Cambridge Assessment and reflecting on how our work can help overcome some of these educational challenges for refugee and asylum seekers, I came to several conclusions. Firstly, we cannot solve all of the challenges at once. Our current work on learning progressions for displaced children is an important part of the puzzle. It is important to focus on each piece of the puzzle before expecting the entire puzzle to take shape at once. If an adaptable learning progression is created, then the next piece can be focused on – how can this learning be recognised at a transnational level to support access to further learning (in any form)?

Working within the growing network of Cambridge Assessment puts us in an excellent position to tackle these questions, largely because of – yes I’m returning to the metaphor – our revolving door. We have the expertise within our organisation, as well as the wisdom to know when to look beyond our walls; whether that be down the road to the brilliant minds of the faculty, or further afield. I strongly believe that as long as we keep opening doors to new ideas and perspectives, as well as keeping an eye on the past where this has developed from, we’ll be moving in the right direction to open the doors of quality education to all.


Sinéad Fitzsimons
Research Officer, Cambridge Assessment

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