The phrase "Hitler's Gift" sounds like an oxymoron.

The provocative idea served as the title of a historical account of the thousands of German – mostly Jewish – intellectuals, who were fired from their positions and driven out of their homes when the Nazis took power.

As early as 1933, organisations were set up in the UK to rescue these refugee academics.

Out of the roughly 2,000 academics saved, 16 received Nobel Prizes – including physicist Max Born, who became a professor at the University of Edinburgh – 18 were knighted and over 1000 became Fellows of The Royal Society or The British Academy.

But when Alan Mackay, Director of Edinburgh Global at the University of Edinburgh, considers "Hitler's Gift" today, he can't help but think about the talent that was lost.

"Not everyone will win a Nobel Prize, but how many other Nobel Prize winners were out there that needed support? How many at-risk academics are out there now that could contribute and continue their careers if they were supported?"

The second question is what drives Mr Mackay's work.

"The need now has never been as significant as since the Second World War. That's the level of need for at-risk academics, and I don't think everyone is appreciative of that."

To help meet this need, the University of Edinburgh has launched a range of new resources to support refugee academics and their families studying in the UK.

Education Beyond Borders is a new project from the University of Edinburgh, in partnership with the Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA), Scholars at Risk Network (SAR), Connected Learning in Crisis Consortium (CLCC), and the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

It builds on the university's and city's long history as sanctuaries for refugees and supporters of displaced academics

Mr Mackay said that the wide range of partnerships contributing to Education Beyond Borders illustrates both a commitment to the cause and the difficult task of meeting the needs of refugees.

"We live in challenging times. There are lots of things happening around the world that require a response. We see our role to support our colleagues wherever they are based in the world: They are just us in a different context, whether that means academics or students."

Read more:  Polish School of Medicine in Edinburgh: how it defied the Nazis

Edinburgh's refugee academics from conflict zone to new life

Education Beyond Borders uses multiple approaches to support refugee academics. In September 2024, Edinburgh University will welcome the first cohort of 30 Displaced Student Scholars.

The new scholarship offers full tuition coverage and up to £15,000 in cost-of-living support for on-campus programmes. 

The university also offers a fellowship to at-risk academics, in partnership with CARA. Previous recipients include scholars from Ukraine, Afghanistan, Syria and Turkey.

Mr Mackay said that universities and other institutions need to learn to adapt to a world where conflict is constant. Flashpoint crises in the Middle East and Europe have dominated the headlines in recent years, but Mr Mackay said that other areas go unnoticed.

"Iran has huge numbers of displaced people, Jordan, Uganda: We're talking huge numbers of displaced people."

Establishing online partnerships, and working closely with local institutions to support academics who have been displaced but wish to remain close to home is the next step in transforming refugee support to meet the modern crises.

The Herald: The University of Edinburgh has been supporting refugee academics since the 1940s, when it helped establish a Polish School of Medicine in the city, in defiance of the Nazi forces occupying Poland.The University of Edinburgh has been supporting refugee academics since the 1940s, when it helped establish a Polish School of Medicine in the city, in defiance of the Nazi forces occupying Poland. (Image: Historia Hufca Lubliniec)

But beyond the educational and professional opportunities, supporting refugee academics also involves changing how we think, Mr Mackay said. 

"It's difficult to get across, but people don't choose this. No one has chosen for their workplace to be destroyed by the Islamic State, or to be uprooted by the Taliban who are denying women education or stopping people from speaking out.

"I've been through places where I see that the only difference between me and a person on the other side of a 15-foot barbed wire fence is where I was born and a piece of paper in my pocket. I can get back through that gate and they can't, but there's no reason for it."

Headlines have been dominated recently with discussions of the role that international students should play in UK universities. Are they cash cows to help universities fill the coffers? Do they take places away from Scottish or UK students?

Mr Mackay said that these questions do not represent the full range of international students. Since 2016, the University of Edinburgh has supported over 100 displaced students and academics. 

In the coming year, it expects to accept 30 more students and as many as five new academics. These individuals are not "free money" for the university, Mr Mackay said. They are established and promising academics who will receive financial aid, English language support, cost-of-living support and many more intangibles.

"It's not about the numbers, it's about the people" he said.

"One of the worst things you can do for someone is bring them over here but not provide the proper support. We're trying to protect them and help them continue their careers in a super-charged context."

Many of the academics who have come to Edinburgh, or settled elsewhere in the UK, want to use their careers to support the communities they left behind. 

When Amanullah Ahmadzai left family and friends behind in Afghanistan in 2022, he took up a research position at the University of Edinburgh. But he's never stopped looking back, and he wants to use his research to drive change in Afghanistan that would have made him and his family a target if he had stayed home.

The Herald: Amanullah AhmadzaiAmanullah Ahmadzai (Image: Nic Cameron)

Some scholars can serve their communities in person once the political situation stabilises. Figures from a CARA Iraq Fellowship programme show that almost 90% of the fellowship recipients returned home.

"In general, most academics at risk who are supported through temporary placement intend to return when conditions permit.

"We have seen this with Ukraine recently and Iraq. For others, for instance, Afghanistan, it will depend on developments and whether their home remains unsafe.

"The main point, however, is that a majority seek to return to rebuild and contribute to their nations once safe to do so.” 

Sarah Hoey, Deputy Head of Global Community at the University of Edinburgh, said that she wants to see Education Beyond Borders build on Edinburgh's long history of supporting displaced academics.

“So much potential is lost through lack of access and opportunities for students who have been forcibly displaced.

"We are looking forward to welcoming some incredibly talented individuals to our thriving University community through this scheme and are excited to see their careers take shape.”

Professor Sir Peter Mathieson, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh said: “The University has a proud history in providing support for displaced people and was the first Scottish institution to join the Universities of Sanctuary network. The tenacity, creativity and talent of displaced scholars make a huge contribution to the University and to society beyond.”