Higher Education: After the bullets, the books: A British university is helping displaced students from former Yugoslavia to continue with their studies, reports Fran Abrams

Click to follow
The Independent Online
When Jasmina Djokic found herself stranded in Britain by the war in her home country, the former Yugoslavia, the last thing she needed was to be posted to another of the world's trouble spots.

However, the opportunity to continue her studies at Queen's University in Belfast seemed too good to miss. Jasmina had completed three years of a four-year pharmacy degree at Belgrade university before she came to England for a holiday in June 1992 and was unable to return home.

She contacted Celia Hawkesworth, senior lecturer in Serbian and Croatian studies at London University's School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES) after reading in a newspaper that the school was helping students in her position to continue their studies in Britain. The study of foreign languages is highly prized in former Yugoslavia and most of the students already spoke good English after learning it at school and even taking extra lessons privately.

'I knew three things about Northern Ireland - that Belfast was its main city, that there were some troubles with the IRA and that the Irish get drunk a lot. I did worry in the beginning, but if I hadn't come here it would have been a big mistake in my life. Belfast isn't more dangerous than London,' says Ms Djokic .

She has been very impressed by the friendliness of students and lecturers, and says that for the first time in almost two years, she feels at home.

'In my country I had no chance to speak to the lecturers. They were completely untouchable. Here, the lecturer asked me if I understood everything and said if I needed help just to ask him.'

Ms Djokic, who has entered the second year of the three-year pharmacy course at Queen's, says she has found it more practical than the course in Belgrade, covering everything down to the price of each drug. At home students studied the theory but were expected to pick up many of the practical details once they started work.

The SSEES scheme has so far been able to help more than 100 displaced students from the former Yugoslavia. Before the war, more than half the country's young people would have been at university, and there are now large numbers of former students scattered across Europe. Until the school stepped in last year, helped by a private donation of pounds 60,000, few were able to study in this country because of the high cost of overseas student fees.

Once they are given refugee status the students are treated as home students and their local authority pays their fees and a grant. Home Office delays have meant, however, that many of those who came here before the war started are still waiting for this status.

One of these is Dubravka, now in the second year of a three-year degree course in modern European studies at Thames Valley University in west London. When rising tension in former Yugoslavia forced her to leave Sarajevo university early last year, she was in the final year of a degree in English language and literature. Her family fled to England and they are now students in London. Eighteen months after applying, they are still waiting for refugee status.

'Most of us aren't happy to live on benefits but they don't give us much option,' Dubravka says.

She finds her course much more student-centred than the one she was on at home: 'In Yugoslavia I had 30 hours a week at university. Here at the most it is 15 or 20, but then I still have a lot of work to do.

'At home, you would gather everything that you needed from the lectures, but here you have a lot of individual studying and you must use many different sources. There is more stress on coursework. In Yugoslavia, you have to work for exams, but for the rest of the year it isn't so hard. It takes some time to get used to it, but already I know how the system goes and I am prepared to work steadily.'

Britain's more selective university system, which still only admits 28 per cent of young people compared with more than 50 per cent in Yugoslavia before the war, is much more supportive of its students, according to Dubravka.

In Yugoslavia, she says, students did not get any financial support from the government. Only parents who were comfortably-off could afford to send their children to another town to university; as a result many lived at home.

'There are special hostels for students, but only the very poorest can get a place. Most students, I would say 80 or 90 per cent, have to find a place privately.

'It is much better organised here in every way, with departments within the university where you can go with problems, whether it's health or finance. And there are so many things for students - though I am not participating because I haven't enough time and I did it once already in Yugoslavia. But everything is organised, sports and clubs and everything.'

She does not think there will be much for her to go home to, even when the war ends.

'I haven't really got a place to go back to. I am a Serb from a Muslim town, and everything we had has been taken away. I don't think I will ever go back.'

About 70 students like Jasmina and Dubravka have been offered free places by British universities through the SSEES scheme, many finding their own living costs. Others have approached universities independently and have been treated sympathetically. A further 30 are on the scheme's waiting list, and new inquiries are still coming in at the rate of one a week.

Mrs Hawkesworth hopes that an appeal through the Association of University Teachers' newspaper, Update, will persuade academics to give up 1 per cent of their salaries - this year's pay rise - to help the students.

Mrs Hawkesworth says: 'After this year I really don't know what will happen. Every week I get an inquiry from a student looking for a place, and I have to hope that by next year there will be more money from somewhere.

'The students are all rather thin and hungry because I only give them little dollops of money to make the fund last.'

Cheques should be made out to The Bosnian Students Appeal and sent to Celia Hawkesworth at SSEES, University of London, Senate House, London WC1E 7HU.

(Photograph omitted)