Academics and students displaced due to conflict and unrest often face barriers when attempting to integrate and continue their professional pursuits in the country they have migrated to. To remove these barriers, understanding attitudes, structures and perceptions around displaced academics are crucial.

Using a survey, we observed that, encouragingly, there is a relatively high number of support initiatives available to help displaced academics and students. More problematic were the clear concerns that were raised over the lack of concrete and practical information available regarding how to best assist displaced academics who want to continue their studies and research at European universities and research centres.

Our survey highlights ‘predictable’ barriers, such as lack of financial and administrative resources, together with more complex issues, such as concern over the fairness of programmes designed specifically to assist displaced academics. Tackling these issues in an evidence-based manner remains more important than ever.

University of Sarajevo / Milan Suvajac

Displaced academics and students

Many refugees and displaced academics face significant difficulties finding jobs or opportunities to continue their professional practices in the countries they migrate to. The ‘European’ refugee and migration crisis peaked in 2015 and while the issue may have receded from the front page of newspapers, there remains a great need to support those who have been forcibly displaced, including various strategies for the integration of people into higher education institutions: universities and research centres (HEIs). Vital for this is exploring the perceptions of researchers in Europe regarding the barriers for refugees and displaced academics in accessing jobs and research opportunities in higher education (HE).

A team from the University of Manchester and the Marie Curie Alumni Association (MCAA) conducted a survey which explored the institutional practices and ease of access for forced migrant academics and students in European HEIs. For the purposes of this survey, forced migration was defined as an open-ended term that covers many kinds of displacement or involuntary movement—both across international borders and inside a single country. This definition includes people who have sought asylum and those who have been granted with the temporary or permanent right to remain in the country in which they sought asylum. Moreover, the survey meant to capture opinions about forced migrant academics and students, although trends and responses did not exhibit much differentiation between academics and students. The survey was principally addressed to past and current fellows of the Marie Skłodowska Curie Actions (an initiative of the European Union that provides support for researchers through a variety of programs) using the MCAA portal. The survey was also disseminated through other networks including EURAXESS, Scholars at Risk, Academics for Peace and EURODOC.

Survey context

A total of 2,834 respondents initiated the survey (however, only a much smaller proportion completed all the sections of the survey). The proportion of respondents varied across the survey sections. Of those that stated their gender identity, 56% (n=483) of the total respondents identified as female and 43% (n=371) male. 47% (n=404) of those who identified their age were in the 30-39 age bracket, indicating that they were relatively early in their career, further reflected by the fact that 75% (n=514) who identified their employment status said that they were on a fixed-term contract. This has implications, as we shall see, on some of the perceptions for the need for meritocratic access to HE positions. Of those that identified their employer, 93% (n=588) of respondents live and work in Europe. Importantly, 115 respondents identified themselves as forced migrant academics.

This survey identified national and international initiatives for forced migrant academics and students and explored whether respondents were aware of their own institution’s involvement in these initiatives and whether they had personally participated in the delivery of any programs. The study was distinct in that it aimed to gather information about initiatives focused on facilitating access to academic opportunities in HEIs for forced migrant academics and students as opposed to the more general support provided in the aftermath of the refugee crisis. The principal aim was not to create a database or map of provision but to explore the visibility and awareness of initiatives to support the access and participation of forced migrant students and academics.

General support for migrants but concerns over ‘meritocracy’

Our main finding was that the majority of respondents 79% (n=236) who responded to the question regarding support agreed that their HEI should offer opportunities to access jobs and research work to forced migrant academics. Only 7% (n=21) felt otherwise and 13% (n=40) stated that they did not know. While there was a strong indication of support for forced migrant academics and students, the other significant finding is that there is a lack of knowledge about initiatives meant to help migrant academics and students. When asked about whether their institutions had any initiatives to support forced migrants, 66% (n=305) did not know. Of the 13% (n=59) who answered positively, i.e. that their HEI did support forced migrants, two-thirds did not know whether forced migrant students or academics were the focus of support. There was also a general awareness that forced migrant academics face many obstacles and challenges: 60% (n=161) affirmed that they thought there were barriers at their own institution. Many respondents also did not know what local university regulations and national legislation affected (or supported) forced migrants.

The survey respondents also contributed free-text responses. An analysis of these texts showed that there were four dominant themes which reflected respondents’ key concerns in terms of needs and barriers that they felt were hindering initiatives within universities to support forced migrant academics and students. These themes included: (1) concern over a general lack of resources, (2) identification of specific needs such as recognition of language ability and previous academic credentials, (3) concern that the issue is the responsibility of the state (rather than the university), and (4) concern over meritocratic access.

We were not surprised that the lack of financial and administrative resources was identified as an important obstacle. Nor were we surprised that many of the respondents were unaware of what initiatives and support were available at their own institutions for forced migrant academics. Although most of the respondents supported HEIs extending help and increased access to forced migrant academics, our survey highlights concerns around the reasons why a smaller number of respondents seemed to disagree. For advocates and those trying to implement pathways for migrant academics, it is important to consider these opinions.

Institutions or states

Some respondents did not believe that HEIs should be responsible and that states were ultimately accountable for handling the issue. There is a sense that the barriers faced by forced migrant academics cannot be sufficiently addressed by solutions at the level of HEIs but rather require more systemic and political solutions. One illustrative quote reads:

‘I don't think it's particular to the institution, I think it's a problem of the UK's immigration policies’

Another area of interest is that some respondents had concerns around what we feel are issues of meritocracy (broadly understood). They did not believe that initiatives supporting access for forced migrants would be beneficial to HEIs or other researchers or the wider student body. A number of respondents felt that academic quality in Europe might deteriorate and that there were already foreign PhDs in Europe and thus mechanisms for integration already existed. Some felt that all applicants to jobs and position should be treated equally and that special measures for forced migrants would affect this equality. Others said that it might be difficult to differentiate who is a true ‘migrant academic’. Two illustrative quotes are:

'I see no barriers to talented academics from any country to enter any institution in the world. Supporting academics from some countries at the expense of other researchers destroys equality of the students and decreases the science level of the recipient institution in general'


‘There are a lot of foreign PhD students in the Institute, including students arrived from Asia and Africa’

These concerns raise a number of issues. They include a need for visibility and awareness regarding who is a forced migrant and what conditions and obstacles they actually face. A number of studies show that forced migrant academics face a complex set of issues with respect to the structural challenges they encounter as well as their personal motivations to continue their academic work. There are many obstacles that forced migrants face which are distinct and different to the wider population of academics, which in some ways means that it is difficult for them to integrate into their host countries’ HEIs if they do not receive help or assistance.

Implications for higher education stakeholders

Many forced migrant academics retain their career aspirations and want to work. They want to obtain further qualifications and continue to seek opportunities to use their existing skills and experience. Our research shows that although there is a lot of goodwill towards these forced migrant academics, there is a need to raise awareness of what avenues and initiatives are available to help them and how their institutions and themselves as individuals can respond.

This means that those working at HEIs need to increase the awareness around any initiatives. There needs to be a better way of signposting forced migrants to the systems that can support specific needs such as recognition of prior learning, language ability, and research experience. Our research highlighted various organizations throughout Europe who are offering some of this help.

Our study also shows that there are some isolated concerns over whether extending extra help to forced migrant academics contradicts meritocratic principles at HEIs. There is a sense that refugees should be evaluated using the same criteria, but this is, we argue, problematic. One response is to break down the barriers to understanding the lived reality faced by people who have been forcibly displaced and illustrate through personal contact or individual cases that most migrants do end up contributing much to their new HEIs. In one concrete example, our team has been advocating for the showing of documentaries such as 'Science in Exile', which traces the stories of four forced migrant academics and highlights issues around barriers but also the institutional response to support their ability to overcome these challenges. Most importantly, though, it shows that the stories of forced migrants are individual and irreplaceable.

Note: This article is published under a CC BY license.