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UEL shortlisted for Guardian University Awards for pioneering Calais Jungle course

Students at USS

Well deserved recognition for UEL team who gave up free time to deliver higher education course to Calais Jungle residents

The outstanding efforts by a team of University of East London (UEL) staff and students to provide higher education to migrants and refugees in the Calais ‘Jungle’ has been recognised with a nomination for the Guardian University Awards 2017. 

The UEL team spent a spent a year travelling to the camp to offer residents a unique ‘Life Stories’ course in a makeshift school building amid the squalid conditions. The camp was eventually closed in October by the French authorities.

UEL, which was the only UK higher education institution to offer such a course in Calais, has been shortlisted for an award in the category of ‘Student Diversity and Widening Participation’.

Professor Corinne Squire, who devised and led the project, said, “The 'Life Stories' team at UEL is thrilled to have been shortlisted for this important award.

“We feel this shortlisting recognises the commitment and creativity of the many residents of the Calais Jungle who engaged with education despite extremely difficult circumstances. 

“We hope that our course, like the other educational initiatives in the camp, will be a starting point for ex-residents now pursuing their dreams of education – a powerful force that crosses many borders.” 

Funded by generous grants from UEL, the team of around 30 staff and students gave up their free time so that camp residents could learn, reflect, write their own stories and pursue their dreams of pursuing a degree in the future. 

Professor Squire said, “Many of the camp residents were highly educated and keen to continue their education. They wanted to record and reflect on what had happened to them.  

“They didn’t just want to survive. In the Jungle, that was difficult enough. Like anyone else, they wanted to live creative and productive lives. Education is also a human right.”

Students who studied on the course included a college lecturer from Ethiopia, an optician from Syria whose work helping people on different sides of the conflict led to threats against him, English literature and electrical engineering graduates from Sudan and a veterinary science student from Eritrea.

They read and discussed inspiring life stories, including those of Nelson Mandela, Malala Yousafzai and Barack Obama. They also attended sessions on philosophy and social theory. 

The curriculum was enriched by workshops with photographers Gideon Mendel and Crispin Hughes, visual artist Chila Burman and poet J.J. Bola.

Of the 37 students who studied on the ‘Life Stories’ course,  20 have passed so far, four with firsts. Fifty additional camp residents attended workshops and classes and a further 100 engaged with ‘refugee HE’ outreach.

The course carried five transferable undergraduate credits and a certificate, plus evidence of readiness for and commitment to higher education.

Despite numerous obstacles, many participants are now preparing for university. Some are taking a foundation course at Université Lille III.

“I will work so hard and if university accepts me, I will go,” said one ex-Calais student, who was an orphan from Afghanistan and survived a traumatic journey to the UK.

‘Voices from the Jungle’, an anthology of life stories written by Calais Jungle students and edited by the UEL team, will be published in April.  

Winners of the Guardian University Awards will be announced at a ceremony on 29 March.