Starving, suicidal and excluded: Universities and Government criticised on handling of International Students during pandemic

Basic supplies: hundreds of International students queue outside The Newham Community Project hub for basic supplies. Source: Elyas, Newham Community Project.
“They are starving and survive on one meal a day”: Tier 4 visa International students from across the UK have detailed how they have been left stranded and without funds in two letters addressed to the Home Secretary Priti Patel.

[Disclaimer: This article briefly discusses sensitive subjects involving suicide]

By Mustakim Hasnath

Two letters addressed to the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, on the treatment of international students during the COVID-19 pandemic, have been signed by university lecturers, researchers, migrant and anti-racist activists. At the time of writing the article, the letters had received well over 250 signatures each, and have additionally been signed by union representatives across the UK.

Gair Rhydd understands, as of Friday afternoon, the letters have received over 1,000 signatures each.

Gair Rhydd has seen both letters and a list of signatories, which includes students and academics at Cardiff University.

Both letters are coordinated by Unis Resist Border Controls (URBC) and Migrants’ Rights Network (MRN). One letter addresses the no recourse to public funds for international students who stay in the UK as part of their studies, under the Tier 4 visa, and demands that this measure ends. 

The condition, under current immigration legislation in the UK, means if a person is subject to immigration control, they will have no recourse to public funds. This means no entitlement to the majority of welfare benefits, including income support, housing benefit, and a range of allowances and tax credits. 

URBC, a grassroots campaign led by migrant university lecturers and students campaigning against the Home Office’s hostile environment policy, claims that Tier 4 international students have been left stranded and without funds due to the no recourse to public funds measures. 

Since May 2020, the group has provided over £5,000 in aid to Tier 4 students and has a waiting list of students seeking support. Students affected include those who are self-funded and are having problems accessing funds for maintenance due to their families being in lockdown overseas, who are unable to send money for food, rent, and other miscellaneous expenses. 

The group believes that as restrictions continue in other parts of the world, many international Tier 4 students will be unable to sustain themselves due to families being out of work.

What has happened?

URBC claims that students have contacted them indicating that “they are starving and survive on one meal a day”. Others have explained to URBC that the uncertainty of their situation has made them severely depressed, whilst others have reportedly had “suicidal thoughts during lockdown because of the dire financial situation they are experiencing and the inability to afford basic necessities”. 

A study conducted by URBC in collaboration with Migrants’ Rights Network’ (MRN), found that 55% of si  124 Tier 4 students contacted were either destitute or at risk of becoming destitute due to the COVID-19 lockdown. “This means they do not have enough of an income to survive or are at risk of being evicted”, claim the groups in one of the letters. A large proportion of those affected are assumed to be from working-class and/or lower-middle-class backgrounds. 

The second letter demands a tuition fee amnesty, detailing that “students have indicated that (…) if they do not pay the remainder of their university tuition fees, they could be suspended from their studies.

This comes after the University of East London recently came under criticism after it decided to exclude students who have not been able to clear their arrears by 15th July. The university reportedly informed students it would revoke the visas of those who find themselves in payment arrears on this date. 

In response to the University of East London’s decision, the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) released a statement this week, in which it said it was “concerned by the general lack of empathy from Universities across the UK in supporting students who have been struck by financial hardship in the midst of this Global Crisis”. 

FOSIS, which acts as the umbrella organisation for Islamic Societies across universities in the UK, demanded students not be threatened with exclusions for payment arrears and for students not to be revoked of their Visas if in payment arrears, “whether it be a sole or contributory factor to their exclusion”. 

Gair Rhydd has seen emails between a student and a Credit Controller of the university, which states that “students who have not paid their 19/20 fees in full by 15th July will be excluded from study”.

What kind of response has this garnered?

An email received by a source. Source: Anonymous

A University of East London spokesperson said, “Our top priority is the health and wellbeing of our students. We have enhanced our financial support systems during the pandemic”. The spokesperson continued, “we are committed to working with, and finding a solution for, any student who engages with us about their financial situation”.

FOSIS released a statement on Twitter in light of the university’s response, calling it “a very generic response”. It said, “the reality of the situation is that students have been emailing Credit Control up until as recently as yesterday, and have either received no response or their requests for extensions have been denied”. 

FOSIS continued, “despite assertions from the university that the Credit Team are considering the individual needs of students, we are seeing time and time again the same response from the Credit Control Team”.

Speaking exclusively to Gair Rhydd, a spokesperson for URBC said, “We must remember that the exploitation of Tier 4 students at East London University and at other institutions is down to the marketised higher education structures in the UK that use international students as cash cows while providing them with inadequate and paltry levels of support”.

The spokesperson continued, “we urge students and staff to work with URBC in ending the marketised higher education system, the hostile environment, and all other existing border controls happening within UK higher education that are marginalising international students and university staff”.

Is this only happening in the University of East London?

Gair Rhydd understands similar emails have been sent from other institutions, including Kingston University. URBC and MRN are concerned this is a nation-wide problem. 

A notification sent to a source, suggesting suspension. Source: URBC

Gair Rhydd has learned that The Newham Community Project, based in East London, has been supporting international students affected by the pandemic. 

One volunteer, who requested to remain anonymous, said they were inundated with calls for help from international students. They told Gair Rhydd, “One of the students I met was pregnant with their first child and promised to Credit Control that they would pay the fees back, but the university was as stubborn as they have been with everyone else. They said if she didn’t pay by the 15th July, she’d be out”.

They continued, “another student was considering suicide after their family back in India couldn’t send funds due to the banks being closed. Their family resorted to selling all their jewellery. It’s just not humane that the university [University of East London] still demanded that he pay by 15th July or face exclusion”. 

Our source told us that the problem was not exclusive to the University of East London and that universities across the UK were implementing similar measures on its students. 

Speaking exclusively to the manager of Newham Community Project, Elyas, Gair Rhydd has heard of cases where universities, including the University of East London, have failed to implement safety measures for its students. 

Elyas told Gair Rhydd, “it all started during Ramadan when we started getting to know students and were so touched by their stories, we asked for their bank details to support them financially”. 

Newham Community Project is a small charity, and after Ramadan started providing grants of £100 to international students struggling to buy basic necessities. “It wasn’t much but you could tell it made a huge difference”, Elyas added. 

“A lot of these students are vulnerable because they can’t communicate due to the language barrier. Universities are taking advantage of them and it’s sickening. The charity has regular meetings with the University of East London and keeps promising things which aren’t being done at all”.

“I heard a phone call recording of someone calling from Credit Control at the University of East London, and that’s no way you treat anyone. This is abuse”.

URBC responded by stating,

“The issue concerning the exploitation of Tier 4 international students isn’t [entirely] because of a language barrier. It is because these students are unaware of their rights. We have included Elyas from the Newham Community Project in meetings that we’ve had with international students affected”

Elyas told Gair Rhydd that Newham Community Project currently supports over 650 international students a week. This number is expected to rise to around 800 students as more students who are affected learn of the support it offers. Gair Rhydd has learned that pressure on students has also come from landlords in addition to universities. 

The University of East London failed to respond to the allegations Gair Rhydd posed about its treatment towards international students and whether it deemed this acceptable. 

How big is the problem in Cardiff?

Academics and students who have spoken to Gair Rhydd have shared concerns that students may be affected here in Cardiff, too. 

In a statement, Cardiff UCU told Gair Rhydd, “We fundamentally believe international students should have the same rights as UK students and should not be threatened with suspension or be facing such hardship during a global pandemic.”

It expressed concern to Cardiff University management that “because students are not eligible for University Credit, this could negatively impact many students’ abilities to support themselves through their studies during the ongoing crisis”, said a UCU spokesperson. 

A Cardiff University spokesperson told Gair Rhydd, it was unable to comment on individual cases, but that “We are very aware that for some students the Covid-19 pandemic has been the cause of financial difficulty”.

The spokesperson said the university had implemented “a number of measures to support students facing financial difficulty as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Agreeing a more manageable repayment plan or the application of a temporary hold on the outstanding value of their fees are two of the measures we have put in place to help our students”. 

Responding to whether it requested payments of tuition fees to international students when services are restricted, the spokesperson commented on the changes the university made in March to “pivot to remote delivery” and that the changes introduced “in line with those made by other universities in the UK and across the globe and are an entirely appropriate and reasonable set of responses to the restrictions that have been deemed necessary by the UK and Welsh Governments”. 

The spokesperson continued, “Whilst we know students may find it disappointing, in line with other UK universities, tuition fees are still required to be paid in full”.

A spokesperson for Cardiff University Students’ Union’s student body stated:

“We know that the pandemic has brought increased financial pressure and difficulty to all our students and that some of our international students will be feeling this pressure in greater number that’s why at the start of the pandemic we were working with the university to improve the hardship funds and help students access the financial resources available to them.

Our advice department have also been incredibly busy advising students on how to submit formal complaints if they feel that their learning outcomes have not been met – the outputs of which include financial compensation”

Whilst universities across the country continue to introduce measures to support its international students during the pandemic, there are growing concerns that student poverty and poor mental health may nonetheless worsen, and that the current measures are not enough.

[This article has been updated to include recently received information]

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