Evaluating the university of sanctuary model: are we getting it right?

Crosbie, Veronica Elizabeth; Maillot, Agnès; Daniel, Julie; McKinley, Philip (2018). 'Evaluating the University of Sanctuary model: are we getting it right?' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


The current global movement of migrants and refugees has been identified as ‘unprecedented’ (European Commission 2017) and ‘one of the most complex challenges and opportunities of our era’ (Gurría 2016). The wellbeing of asylum seekers and refugees can be linked to no less than seven of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (2015), including: 1) Poverty, 2) Hunger, 3) Good Health and Wellbeing, 4) Quality Education, 8) Decent Work and Economic Growth, 11) Sustainable Cities and Communities, and 16) Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions. One of the responses to this challenge has been the establishment of a movement in the UK called ‘City of Sanctuary’ (Bauder 2016), which has quickly expanded to other jurisdictions. Committed to ‘building a culture of hospitality and welcome, especially for refugees seeking sanctuary from war and persecution’ (City of Sanctuary 2017), the movement has spread to Ireland, adopting the name Places of Sanctuary Ireland (PoSI) to indicate its diversity of locations, sectors and actors, including institutes of higher education (City of Sanctuary Ireland 2017).

In this paper, we discuss ways in which the university sector has responded to this global challenge, through the establishment of a ‘University of Sanctuary’ model. Our analysis includes an evaluation of the roles and responsibilities of the university as a social good in promoting social justice, leading to sustainable, inclusive and peaceful societies (Boni and Walker 2013, 2016; Crosbie 2017a). We draw on key tenets of the human development and capabilities approach, including freedom of opportunities, voice and agency (Sen 1999) and those related to human well being such as affiliation, narrative imagination, senses, emotions and thought (Nussbaum 2000, 2011). A case study methodology, involving research data from one higher education setting in Ireland is utilised to operationalise the concept, values and practices of the University of Sanctuary model, in order to shed light on the potential for transformation of both guest and host in a reciprocal relational mode. Mindful of the fact that a “good” university is multidimensional (Boni and Gasper 2012; Boni et al 2016), a human development matrix of core values (Boni et al 2016) is utilised to evaluate the beings and doings of the sanctuary initiative. This includes a set of activities ranging from teaching, research and social engagement to governance, policies and the university environment.

Through surveys, interviews, enrollment data and public forums, we attempt to capture the richness and quality of initiatives established to create a culture of welcome for asylum seekers and refugees, entailing the three core principles of the University of Sanctuary movement: to learn, embed and share (City of Sanctuary 2017). When the university in question received its sanctuary designation in 2016, it committed to delivering on a range of actions (DCU 2018), including: five undergraduate and ten on-line scholarships; the MELLIE project (Migrant English Language, Literacy and Intercultural Education) based on peer storytelling activities; the establishment of an annual university of sanctuary keynote lecture; student-led refugee week; the Hope Mosney book club (set in a Direct Provision centre for asylum seekers and refugees adjacent to the university); the establishment of a university sanctuary steering committee; and a number of research initiatives centred on the well-being of asylum seekers and refugees.

In the course of our interactions with asylum seekers and refugees, we have developed a greater understanding of their situation, including their needs, hopes and aspirations (Hart 2014) as well as their lack of political and economic freedom, which could be described as ‘insecure functionings’ (Wolff and De-Shalit 2007). What has emerged from their narratives (Crosbie 2017b) is a desire for dignity and personal autonomy, both of which are denied to them under the current DP system, which, while ostensibly catering to their basic needs, does not give them the opportunity to choose to be and do what they value (Sen 1999). With this research, our aim is to evaluate the role that institutes of higher education can take, as universities of sanctuary, to transform lives, leading to more egalitarian, sustainable societies. 

scroll to top