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A space to belong to with the Compass Project

Birkbeck’s Compass Project, part funded by A&O, already provides asylum seekers with a new start through higher education and now aims to give the same chance to former prisoners.

Close-up photo of a young man

Janahan Sivanathan has no doubt how fundamentally Birkbeck – part of the University of London – and its Compass Project has changed his fortunes. “It was my first real experience of acceptance. Finally I was being respected as a human being – someone was giving me a space to belong to,” he says reflecting on the moment he learned he had secured a place, through the Compass Project, to complete a one-year Certificate in Higher Education at Birkbeck.

The news came after a seven-year struggle to make a new life in the UK – having escaped imprisonment, torture and sexual assault as part of the persecuted Tamil minority in Sri Lanka – and a further year waiting for asylum finally to be granted in 2018.

The details of his journey are extremely painful to hear – arriving at 17 in London, knowing no one, unable to speak a word of English, put up in a cold garage before being forced into homelessness. There were two spells in a detention centre – one for five months – self-harm, suicide attempts, a hunger strike that brought him close to death and a narrow escape from deportation, before finally, and without explanation, being granted refugee status by a Home Office that had repeatedly refused to believe his story.

The contrast to today could not be more striking. With his status secured, he is now in his second year of a Law degree, has completed a placement with the solicitors, Bhatt Murphy, and is now on an extended placement with the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) while his studies continue.

“The Compass Project really has changed my life,” he says.
It’s a journey that some 60 asylum seekers have experienced over the past three years, thanks to the Compass Project, for which A&O has been a founder funder alongside the consultancy AlixPartners. 

Building a bridge to higher education

Birkbeck itself is a unique institution that has ‘advancing social mobility through access to learning’ written into its guiding principles. Nearly 80% of the College’s students are mature learners; more than 50% come from low-income households; 40% from a black or ethnic minority background; and 17% have a declared disability. 

When Birkbeck’s academic community and Department of Access and Engagement started looking at how to help asylum seekers at the height of the refugee crisis, it was in keeping with that ethos. But the College wanted to do something different.

“Lots of institutions offer valuable and much-needed sanctuary scholarships but we saw that the real gap was in outreach,” explains Anneka Hendrick, Birkbeck’s Head of Corporate Partnerships.

“If you are someone seeking asylum in the UK, you often don’t have the structural access or cultural or social capital to think about accessing higher education. The question we asked ourselves was: how do you build that bridge?”

One immediate challenge was how to reach potential students in this widely dispersed community. Birkbeck did that by appointing a dedicated Compass Project Officer in the Access and Engagement Department and working with a range of charities that had established links with asylum seekers.

The second challenge was funding. “Asylum seekers are classified as international students and are not formally recognised by the Office for Students as a target under-represented group. So we knew we needed to work with corporate partners, alumni and friends of Birkbeck to make this project a reality,” says Anneka.

Getting A&O and AlixPartners on board at the inception stage, and before it was clear how successful the project would be, was a huge breakthrough, not least in the continued search for further corporate backers. A&O has also hosted events, giving Compass Project students a taste of life in a commercial law firm. “Without that support the project wouldn’t have happened.”

Each year the college welcomes 20 asylum seekers studying a range of access or degree level courses. Their fees are funded and they receive additional close support, both to acclimatise to university life and, thanks to help from charities such as Refugees at Home and Breaking Barriers, to travel and find accommodation.

But Birkbeck wants to reach a wider audience. It holds a series of taster days and workshops to help others explore the possibility of study, perhaps not today but in the future. The first year attracted 80 people, but as word has spread the numbers have risen.

“You might have people who are quite far from going to university – they are not ready yet,” says Anneka. “Some will have very harrowing histories and may only have been here a short time. So an important part of the project is just to plant the idea of considering higher education in their minds.”

The project is not primarily a recruitment strategy for the College, she stresses. It is about making sure that asylum seekers can find the right support, the right course, the right university, at the right time for them. Increasingly Birkbeck is collaborating with partners in the sector, sending Compass students on to study their chosen subjects at other universities.

As the project has grown, new obstacles have emerged in what has become an increasingly hostile environment. It is already illegal for asylum seekers to work. But in 2018, just as the second year of Compass was beginning, the government introduced ‘no study’ clauses into many people’s claims. Birkbeck led a vocal campaign to overturn the study ban and all of its students were eventually allowed to continue.

“One of the things we have always been keen to do is to change the narrative around asylum seekers,” says Anneka. “We consider ourselves to be an important voice in that debate.” 

Higher education for former prisoners

The project has been widely recognised, not least in The Guardian’s prestigious University Awards in 2018. And that success has encouraged the College’s Access and Engagement Department, working closely with the law school and its Institute for Criminal Policy Research, to plan Compass Project 2.0 – to offer a route into higher education for former prisoners. Currently at the research stage, the hope is to begin the outreach stage of the project in mid-2020. Once again A&O and AlixPartners have agreed to support the new project for three years.

Janahan, meanwhile, is an eloquent advocate for Compass and the possibilities it can unleash for the most vulnerable in society. 

He recalls many poignant moments on his journey. He remembers how he taught himself English through newspapers, children’s books and nursery rhymes and by carefully watching people’s mannerisms and facial expressions.

He remembers the help he eventually got from the charity Medical Justice and from an ex-BBC journalist who now works with victims of torture. She helped him get counselling, pointed him towards studying and, at one dark moment, sent him flowers and a card that read: ”You’re not alone. Have hope and look beyond what you are going through.”

And he remembers the moment in a Lincolnshire detention centre in 2015 when he began to put his own desperate struggle aside and to focus on helping other asylum seekers trapped in the system, as a translator. It was then that the idea of one day becoming a lawyer first entered his mind.

The opportunity to be heard

He had no idea back then that he would go on to study at Birkbeck, would win a Law Society prize for essay of the year, or get the qualifications he needed to begin a law degree. No idea either that in a recent work placement he would support a team that prevented a woman from being deported. “The lady had tears in her eyes and thanked me. It felt so fantastic, I went away and cried too,” he says.

“Birkbeck gave me a recognised opportunity to grow and for my voice to be heard,” he adds.

“But I’m not here to represent all refugees. I’m here as an example and to say: I broke these barriers. If you look beyond them, you might get the chance too.” 

This article is taken from the new edition of our pro bono and community investment magazine, Increasing Access.

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