At the end of 2018, there were almost 26 million refugees and 3.5 million asylum seekers worldwide. Only an estimated 3% currently have access to higher education (HE) (UNHCR, 2019). While international organisations have begun addressing this HE access issue, the body of relevant research remains relatively underdeveloped. Using a qualitative simultaneous multimethod research design (Morse, 2003), employing both quantitative and (predominantly) qualitative methods, this thesis analyses the (under)representation of refugee background students (RBS) in universities in two European states – England and Poland. The study aimed to determine whether RBS are indeed underrepresented in HE in these two countries and – if so – to examine the reasons behind this. Access to HE is framed in this study as a human right and a social justice issue. This thesis established that in relative terms, considering general HE participation rates in both countries – RBS can be considered as underrepresented in English and Polish universities. It further provides rich data leading to new in-depth understandings of the RBS’ own perceptions of barriers to HE access and participation, and in particular how these are not only accumulating but also intersecting and exacerbating each other. It explores the perceptions of university and the third sector staff regarding access/participation barriers, and examines issues faced by those trying to establish structures of support for RBS. It offers a comparative aspect in most parts of the study, by including two national contexts, offering commentary on the common issues and differences, which can be used to develop a deeper understanding of the wider, international picture. Findings presented in this thesis can be used by policymakers, universities, and third sector to evaluate, modify, and improve policies and practices relating to RBS access and participation in HE, to ensure equality, parity and social justice in and through higher education.

DOI: 10.1007/s10734-020-00515-4