From Gaza war to UK studies: Scholarships for Palestinian students forced to adapt

More Palestinian students in Gaza are applying to study in Britain, but scholarship-awarding organisations do not know how to get them out

Banners in support of Palestine at Goldsmiths, University of London. Getty Images
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Despite internet blackouts, displacement and missing paperwork, Palestinian students in Gaza are still applying to study in the UK.

Some universities and grant-giving organisations have made additional places and funding available for students from the war-torn strip.

It is just one of the provisions made to accommodatestudents whose applications have been impacted by the continuing conflict.

Those who had secured a place at a university and then applied for a scholarship face enormous challenges leaving Gaza – with costs that the grant-giving organisations are currently weighing up.

“We don’t know how we will get them out,” said Bill Williamson, professor emeritus at the University of Durham and a trustee at the Durham Palestinian Educational Trust.

Established in 1984, the trust is among the longest-running scholarships for Palestinian students, offering up to six grants a year to students from Gaza and the West Bank who have secured a place at Durham University. Funding for two additional scholarships was donated to the trust by the university this year.

Yet transportation costs to the Rafah border crossing had skyrocketed due to the war. Palestinians were paying upwards of $5,000 to an Egyptian travel agent for permits to leave Gaza. “There will come a point of whether we can fund it or not,” Mr Williamson said.

Although the trust had paid for two exit permits for students in previous years, back then these had ranged from $700-$1,000. The uncertainty meant that flights from Cairo to the UK would also need to be booked at short notice – as and when a student is able to leave – adding to the costs.

“The international community should put pressure on Egypt and Israel to allow students to exercise their right to education,” Mr Williamson said, calling for easier passage for Palestinian students out of Gaza.

In the past, he added, the British Council – whose offices in Gaza were currently closed – had organised vehicles for students to leave Gaza through the Erez crossing into Israel.

All 12 of Gaza’s universities had been targeted by the Israeli army, leaving students with no access to key academic paperwork.

With the British Council offices closed, students could take the IELTS language test online, but many were struggling to access the internet. “They don’t have that opportunity from a tent in Rafah,” Mr Williamson said.

Some programmes have been unavailable for students in Gaza this coming academic year, including the British Council’s Higher Education Scholarships for Palestinians (HESPAL). Students are nominated by their universities in Palestine, and due to the continuing war, the programme was “not available to Gazan partner universities for this cycle”.

A spokesperson for HESPAL said they were “currently developing an alternative track for Gazan scholars to address and adapt to the challenges posed by the current situation”.

Many institutions had extended deadlines for students in Gaza and waived the need for some paperwork, such as academic references. Candidates who could not leave Gaza on time were also being given the option to defer entry.

The UK government's Chevening Scholarship, which took in 13 Palestinian students last year, had given students from Gaza who were awarded an interview the option to defer it.

The scholarships had a long-term impact in Palestine, Mr Williamson added. “Our graduates become bridges between two cultures: Palestine and the western world. Our students have all gone into useful employment or careers in Palestine,” he said, adding that two students went on to work overseas.

Proposed curbs on foreign visas by the UK government would come at a huge detriment to these scheme, which enables students to develop their careers in the UK before returning home to “shape the future of Palestine”, Mr Williamson said.

They had received more applications from Gaza than in previous years. “Not only are Palestinians wanting a higher education, they want to escape,” Mr Williamson said.

Mohammed Seyam, 25, is a Chevening Scholar studying global health management at University College London. A medical doctor by training and specialist in diabetes, he hopes the course will help him shape public health policy around diabetes.

“I'm a doctor and diabetes advocate, I wanted to be able to wear different hats, and have different perspectives to shape policies for people living with diabetes,” he said.

Since beginning his scholarship, he has been invited to speak at healthcare conferences in the UK and abroad. “What's happening in Gaza awakened my humanitarian awareness. I want to focus on diabetes management in humanitarian settings and in lower to middle income countries,” he said.

Mr Seyam is unable to return to Gaza when his degree ends in September, and will be looking for employment in health care in the UK.

Yet he hopes to be part of the cohort that will help the strip recover from the devastating war once it ends. “If the war ends and the rebuilding process starts, I want to help rebuild the Gazan health system. I don't know if I'll live there permanently,” he said.

“A lot is going to have to be rebuilt in Gaza,” Mr Williamson said. “An underlying structure is hope, their hope has been destroyed. That’s what we’re going to have to do when we meet our students at the airport later this year.”

New scholarships for Palestinians have emerged as a result of student protests. Goldsmiths, University of London, has extended its Palestinian scholarship programme from two to three postgraduates this coming academic year, and is developing an offer for undergraduate entry for the following one.

A spokesperson from Goldsmiths said they expected to take students from Gaza in September, despite the challenges.

The university would not be able to cover exit fees from Rafah. “We are exploring the possibility of covering other expenses such as visa application fees and Immigration Health Surcharge fees for scholarship recipients,” the spokesperson said.

“In instances where applicants are unable to leave Gaza, we can defer entry and scholarships to the following year.”

The Bseisu Foundation, which supports students from the Middle East who are studying at the UK's top universities, said it was in conversation with more Russell Group universities to expand their intake.

They were also asking partner universities in Malaysia to relax their requirements for Palestinian students who may not have completed their secondary school exams.

The foundation is also a donor to HESPAL and the UK government’s Chevening Scholarship, having funded 59 scholarships to Palestinians to date.

“We want to make sure bright students are not being adversely impacted by political events on the ground. We want to help protect their future. They are contributing back to their region,” said Steven Turner, interim chief executive of the Bseisu Foundation.

“It's important to keep these scholarships open, even if impacted by political events on the ground.”

Updated: May 30, 2024, 2:13 PM