The Brilliant Club has a track record of over ten years working with students from underrepresented groups across the UK, providing them with skills and experiences to help them in accessing and succeeding at highly selective universities. In 2023, this work extended to those students from refugee, asylum seeking and forced migrant backgrounds in a pilot project titled ‘The Sanctuary Scholars Programme’ thanks to the funding provided by The Big Give.

In 2024, funded by The University of Manchester, The Brilliant Club adapted the programme based off the data from the pilot to enhance the sense of belonging for students from refugee, asylum seeking and forced migrant backgrounds at higher education institutions. To achieve this, students worked with three PhD tutors from a range of subject streams in a ‘rotational course’ across five academic tutorials. They also engaged in both a Launch and Graduation event hosted at Manchester Museum.

Based off pilot feedback, The Brilliant Club developed a ‘placed-based’ approach, using the work of Joanna McIntyre, to the final assignment. The students recorded their responses to the Big Question ‘Interpreting the Body: What makes identity?’ These were then edited into a soundscape which was played across multiple venues around Manchester during the students’ graduation and campus tour to demonstrate that their voices matter within the academic space.

Below some extracts from this soundscape:

‘Identity is like a combination of puzzle pieces that make us who we are.’

‘As we settled into our new home, I quickly became aware of the complexities of my identity. Being black in a predominantly white society brought back both challenges and thrills. I experienced the beauty of culture, diversity, as I embraced my African roots whilst also navigating the complexities of assimilation. Language became a bridge connecting my heritage to my new reality.’

‘How do you relate to your identity if major parts of your culture were looted and stolen? Is your identity then defined by the influence of the love of the rest? The language that your grandparents speak? French, Spanish, English? Is your culture overshadowed by the atrocities committed before the 1960’s or the fragment of your country’s identity that still survived colonialism?’

The rationale for this type of culmination of the course is that it allowed the students to see their voices have an impact on the University environment, prior to their arrival. A ‘Place-based approach’ allowed students to weave their own stories and ideas into a space, providing a sense of belonging.

Programme Overview

Sanctuary Scholars is based on a theory of change model which is grounded in the belief that engagement with university-level academic work, under the guidance of PhD tutors, cultivates not only a sense of belonging but also academic readiness and aspirations for higher education.

There is a large body of literature which explores the impact of long-term attention to these factors, by teachers. However, there is currently less written about the impact short-term interventions can have on the aspiration and skills to achieve life-long learning of these students. Therefore, the Sanctuary Scholars theory of change, and results listed below, demonstrate an additional way in which these students can be supported in their educational journey.

Impact & Significance

During Sanctuary Scholars, participants experienced university-style learning and developed the skills, knowledge, and confidence to potentially go on to, and excel at, the most competitive universities.
Below is some of the key data from the surveys participants completed at the start and end of the programme, with the aim of understanding the impact on student outcomes. The outcomes we explored were from the TASO Access and Success Questionnaire:

  • Sense of belonging
  • Academic self-efficacy
  • Cognitive strategies

Students were also asked about their attitudes towards and knowledge about continuing education after they have finished school, so we could measure whether they knew how to make meaningful choices about their next steps (Lifelong Learning Knowledge).

Sense of Belonging

Sanctuary Scholar students experienced increased levels in sense of belonging. For example, 58% of students strongly agreed with ‘University is for people like me’ in the pre-survey and this jumped 18 percentage points to 75% of students in the post-survey. Additionally, only 54% of students in the pre-survey strongly agreed with ‘My ideas and contributions are valued in academic discussions’ and this increased nearly 30 percentage points to 83% in the post-survey.

Our data underscores that the sense of belonging in an academic space, fostered through the Sanctuary Scholars program, correlates with a student’s perceived capability to thrive in higher education. The culmination of the course through the soundscape assignment is emblematic of the students seeing their voices as impactful, further anchoring their sense of place within the university environment.

Academic Self-efficacy

During the pre-programme survey, Sanctuary Scholar students already had relatively high levels of academic self-efficacy with 79% of students strongly agreeing ‘I am confident that I can get the exam results required to progress to university’ and 88% strongly agreeing that they have ‘I have the academic ability to do well at university’. This makes it difficult to find improvement in these measures as the students are already near the ceiling for those questions in the pre-survey.

However, students did experience large increases in the question about how they would do once they are in university. The percentage of students strongly agreeing with ‘I could manage with the level of study required at university’ jumped from 67% in the pre-survey to 83% in the post-survey. This shows a substantial increase in students’ confidence in managing university-level study, which aligns with our theory of change’s emphasis on the transition to higher education.

Cognitive Strategies

Additionally, students were surveyed about their ability to explain their ideas in writing and speech. It is worth noting that many of the students participating in the programme had English as their second language and therefore seeing rapid increases in this field over the course of five weeks could be impacted by this. However, there was growth in students strongly agreeing with the statement ‘I can confidently explain my ideas when talking to others’ from 54% before the programme and 58% afterwards. The progression in cognitive strategies, although subtler due to the short timeframe of the program and the students’ linguistic backgrounds, nevertheless indicates an important trend in developing crucial academic skills.

Lifelong Learning Knowledge

In addition to the TASO Access and Success questions, students were also asked about lifelong learning. Pre-survey responses show that 100% of students strongly agreed that they want to continue to learn after they finish school. This fits in with the wider body of literature about refugee education which demonstrates that it is often not ambition that limits young people from these backgrounds going on to higher education institutions or engaging in life-long learning.
Meanwhile only 71% of students strongly agreed that they know how to find opportunities to continue learning after school. This increased to 75% after the programme. Students were asked to expand upon the above questions. Examples of students’ responses include:

  • I would like to be a lawyer, specifically in the criminology area and I would also like to work at the same time.
  • I want to do civil engineering.
  • I want to do chartered accounting.
  • I would like to be a computer engineer.

The responses from both surveys show perhaps a higher-than-expected baseline awareness of further and higher education pathways amongst this student group. However, it is likely that these students will continue to need tailored advice and guidance about their future options throughout their time at secondary school, especially regarding areas like student finance and funding and choosing the right university for them.


Having led on both the development of the pilot project, and this year’s iteration of the Sanctuary Scholars Programme, it is encouraging to see that those changes we implemented to increase a sense of belonging through the soundscape appear to have paid off in the student data.

Students from refugee, asylum seeking and forced migrant backgrounds have clear ambitions for their future but often must overcome systematic challenges in order to achieve these in a higher education space. From looking at the data, and firsthand accounts with the students and teachers, I believe the work undertaken as part of this project has enabled these students to begin to think about their next steps earlier than perhaps, they would otherwise, which is essential when they may also have to navigate future challenges around financing their studies due to status.

I also think that this data shows that short term interventions with students from these backgrounds can be highly effective. Much of the literature around ‘sense of belonging’ and ‘place-based approaches’ focuses on the teacher-pupil relationship over a long period of time. Whilst lead teachers and their efforts are still essential to the successful running of programmes like Sanctuary Scholars, the above data suggests that real impact can also come from exposing students to multiple voices from within a university context, earlier (KS4), and that growth in sense of belonging can also be accomplishable in relatively short time frames.

Looking forward

Off the back of the success of the pilot, and then the ‘placed-based’ approach adopted at The University of Manchester this year, The Brilliant Club is looking to expand The Sanctuary Scholars programme to a number of universities and schools across the UK using the previous model but developing it further.

As well as promoting our soundscape and ‘place-based approach’, given the data collected this year, we are keen to explore what changes can be made at the tutor training and tutorial delivery stage in order to see further increases in academic self-efficacy and cognitive strategies. These are both areas our flagship Scholars Programme has significant experience in promoting and so we now intend to take the lessons learnt from two years of the Sanctuary Scholars Programme and incorporate these with further academic skills development already available to us.

We are also keen to begin looking at providing opportunities for those from refugee, asylum seeking and forced migrant backgrounds once they get to university. Therefore, we are keen to work with individual institutions in the next academic year to explore the viability of training up PhD tutors, who are from these backgrounds themselves, to deliver as part of the Sanctuary Scholars programme.

Thinking longer term, we know that supporting students from refugee, asylum seeking and forced migrant backgrounds into HE institutions also requires informing and collaborating with parents and carers as well. Ideally, in the future, we would also like to bring elements of our Parent Power Programme into Sanctuary Scholars as well.

For any further questions about The Sanctuary Scholars Programme or to get involved, please contact