The Independent

‘Unfairly punished’: Foreign students struggling to feed themselves as they are denied support during pandemic

Foreign students in the UK have been plunged into financial hardship as they struggle to pay their tuition fees during the coronavirus pandemic and are blocked from accessing state support, charities warn.

Dismissal from part-time jobs and a loss of financial support from family members abroad due to Covid-19 has left some students having to choose between eating meals or paying their course fees, which they are usually required to pay in order to remain in the UK.

This is exacerbated by the fact that most overseas students are blocked from accessing state support because of the no recourse to public funds (NRPF) policy, which prevents thousands of migrants from accessing help from the government due to their immigration status.

Ministers are being urged to take action to ensure that these individuals are able to access support, and are not suspended from their studies and forced to leave the UK as a result of not being able to pay their tuition fees, which vary between £10,000 and £38,000 a year.

More than 500 university students, lecturers, MPs, trade unions and migrant rights organisations have written to the home secretary Priti Patel calling on her suspend the NRPF policy for international students, in order to prevent many from becoming destitute during the coronavirus crisis.

In a second letter, addressed to the universities minister, Michelle Donelan, organisations demand a tuition fee amnesty for foreign students affected by the pandemic, warning that many were feeling “suicidal” because they were “terrified both of being removed from their courses, and of the serious immigration problems that would result”.

Research by campaign groups Migrants’ Rights Network and Unis Resist Border Controls, based on a survey of 124 students from overseas in June, indicates that more than half were destitute or at risk of becoming destitute, while three in four of those who previously had a part-time job had lost this employment as a result of the lockdown.

One student, from Singapore, who asked not to be named, told The Independent she had been forced to to start skipping meals and walking to work instead of taking public transport – despite suffering from chronic pain – when her part-time job as a beauty consultant in London started assigning her fewer hours due to the pandemic.

The woman, who studies at the University of Arts London, said: “For me and other international students, it’s been a case of either paying the tuition fee instalment or paying rent, and most of us chose having a place to stay in a pandemic.

“It’s a very stressful situation as we are well aware that our visas are linked to our universities, so if we couldn’t pay the entire huge international student fee upfront, or if we were to miss an instalment, the consequences would be greater than us just being withdrawn from our courses – it would put us in a precarious immigration situation.

“Because we have NRPF, we’re left destitute in a time where we no longer have reliable sources of funding from home or from our jobs, all the while trying to afford the tuition fees.”

Another student, Rafiya Sherin, 24, who moved to Britain from India last September to study intercultural business communication at the University of Central Lancashire, said she was having to rely on charities or her family back home – despite them struggling themselves – to afford her rent and basic essentials.

Rafiya says she feels bad asking her parents for money when they are struggling themselves during the Covid-19 crisis

The Indian national, who pays £13,900 a year for her course, had a part-time administration job at the university prior to the pandemic, but this stopped in March.

“I don’t feel good about asking my parents for money. Back in India my family’s financial situation is not great. They’re also suffering because of the lockdown there,” she said.

“I’m being very careful with what I spend. If I spend £10, it just makes me think of how much that is worth in India, money that my family is sending back to me.

“It’s been really depressing. I can’t find work. It’s been seven months. have a lot of work to submit, but I struggle to focus on it because I’m always worrying about my financial situation and how I’ll pay my bills.”

Ms Sherin said she received a one-off £200 support payment from her university in May, but hadn’t had any further support since. She added: “We’re paying for online classes. We aren’t getting any proper teaching right now, but we’re still having to pay the full fees.”

Stephen Timms, Labour MP for East Ham, said he was “deeply concerned about the plight of international students in the UK” and urged the government not to “just abandon these students to their fate”.

Nadia Whittome, MP for Nottingham East, said meanwhile said these students were being “unfairly punished” due to their immigration status.

She added: “At no time should this be happening, but it is particularly cruel during a global pandemic. I hope that the entire policy of NRPF is reassessed in light of Covid-19”.

Sanaz Raji, founder and member of Unis Resist Border Controls, which has given over £6,000 in financial support to help students since May, criticised the “marketised” higher education policy, which she said “exploits” students for the tuition fees that they bring to the UK.

She added: “Additionally, the hostile environment policy makes it extremely difficult for international students to be able to challenge unjust and discriminatory treatment within the institutions they are enrolled at. Covid-19 has shown us more starkly than before the precarity that international students have while studying in the UK.”

Mahlea Babjak, London project coordinator at MRN, said: “Universities are key actors in the dismantling of structural inequality and their present and future contribution cannot be fully realised whilst students continue to face the prejudices of the UK’s hostile environment policy.”

A government spokesperson said: “We have been clear that nobody should find themselves destitute during this crisis due to circumstances beyond their control, with students able to apply for hardship funds.

“Extensive action to support those with no recourse to public funds has also been taken, such as rent protections, the Job Retention Scheme, the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme and allocating £750m for charities to support the most vulnerable.”

They said students who were struggling financially to pay their fees could contact their university to make them aware, as many universities would have hardship funds to support domestic and international students in times of need.

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