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In the Republic of Ireland, a system referred to as Direct Provision was set up in 1999 as an emergency measure to meet the basic needs of food and shelter for people seeking asylum while their claims for refugee status are being processed. The Direct Provision system provides those seeking asylum with accommodation, a minimal living allowance, state-funded medical care, and mainstream access to the primary and post-primary education systems for children. Twenty years later, Direct Provision remains the system within which those seeking asylum in the Republic of Ireland are accommodated. In 2018 there were 5,370 refugees and asylum seekers reported as being accommodated in 33 Direct Provision centres (RIA, 2018). The living conditions for people living in these centres are cramped, with limited access to cooking, social and transport facilities and little or no access to computers or the internet (O’ Reilly, 2018). Asylum seekers experience long waiting periods in Direct Provision of up to three years while their cases are processed, and have very limited rights to work. If they are granted refugee status they can access Irish state financial support for further and higher education. Asylum seekers, however, are not entitled to these supports (RIA, 2018). It should also be noted that the Irish state does not provide financial support for learners designated as part-time, online learners (Delaney & Farren, 2016) and so asylum seekers and refugees studying in that mode have no state support to access regardless of their status.

The Universities of Sanctuary initiative is made up of a network of universities committed to welcoming those seeking sanctuary into their communities and to providing a safe place within which they can pursue their educational goals (Universities of Sanctuary, 2019). Since becoming Ireland’s first University of Sanctuary in 2016, Dublin City University (DCU) has awarded 23 University of Sanctuary scholarships to refugees and asylum seekers. Sixteen of those scholarships were provided for flexible, open education programmes designed for off-campus adult learners, with ten students studying at undergraduate level, and the remaining six studying at postgraduate level. 

The programme teams supporting these online scholarship students augmented existing student success practices in order to establish a strategic approach to supporting their transition into online study at higher education level. This approach to student success comprises both pre-entry and on-entry supports with financial, logistical, digital, and programme-specific actions targeted at the early stages of the study life cycle.

Table from Brunton, Farrell, Costello, Delaney, Foley, & Brown (2019).

A qualitative study (semi-structured interviews, discursive psychology analytic approach) was designed to seek a greater understanding of University of Sanctuary scholars’ narratives during their first year. Our key finding was that participants constructed a stark divide between two duelling identities, between their identity as a refugee and their new identity as an online learner. Identification with the university was emphasised in contrast to disidentification with the ‘asylum world’.

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I used to be idle in the hostel. I didn’t have anything to do as we are not allowed to work, not allowed to study. So when I got the scholarship and I started to study, it was a big achievement. It helped me to come out of my loneliness mood. I was always lonely, I was always idle, feeling depressed all the time, but I now am feeling like I can see the future. (Participant 6)

I got this call regarding, you know, and that was it, they said will you hold on the line and a few minutes after they were like oh congratulations, you got it, then I was there, honestly I can’t express the feeling, you know, I felt this different kind of person inside me (Participant 2)

…this is two different worlds, you know, you have the asylum world and you have, you know, you have the study world. And, you know, you might have, you know, a little clue about what it could be. The asylum world is very, very depressing, you know, you’re constantly anxious, you’re constantly in limbo and then back to the study world it’s where you need, you know, you need to put in that 100% concentration, especially when it comes to third level education you need to put your head down. And so it was a little bit hard because there was times where I felt, you know, depressed and stressed, I wouldn’t even want to go on my computer. But again when I flashed back to the support that DCU is giving me, you know, I tell myself no, I cannot, you know, I cannot let this happen. And so when I think of the support that the DCU family has given me, it gives me, you know, it tells me, it’s like a voice talking to me, [name], wake up, wake up from the bed, go on your computer, you need to get these assignments done, you need to do this, you need to do that and so that was it. So it was a little bit difficult for me. (Participant 2) 

The university was constructed by the study’s participants as a source of support, broadly in terms of the support of the scholarship programme and provision of central services but especially with regard to academic and pastoral support from programme teams. Participants described themselves as being part of a community. 

I think it’s, you know, it’s a network, it’s a network of everything, you know, online classroom is a good contact on, you know, on the DCU campus, contacts with the DCU staff, you know. I think all that, it just makes me feel so good. You wake up and you get a mail from, you know, from [Name] or from yourself, you know, this or from [Name] or [Name], you know, it just feels good, you know. You feel like you’re part of, you know, a wealth, educational community. (Participant 2)

This study’s findings further support the literature indicating that a strategically connected student success approach to supporting asylum seekers and refugees transition into online higher education, accounting for the structural, financial, logistical, digital, and social barriers typically experienced can impact positively on these students. It also emphasises the importance of providing flexible, online, open education study routes at higher education level for these under-represented groups. 

Right now we are thinking about all our University of Sanctuary Scholars, and all other asylum seekers, making their way through this COVID-19 crisis while living in cramped conditions in Direct Provision centres. Stay safe my friends!

The content above is based on a published article:

Brunton, J., Farrell, O., Costello, E., Delaney, L., Foley, C., & Brown, M. (2019). Duelling identities in refugees learning through open, online higher education. Open Praxis, 11(4), 397-408. doi:  


The full references for any mentioned above can be found in that article.

Dr James Brunton (@drjamesbrunton –

Dublin City University