Reports of Indian students enrolled at UK universities struggling with fees and basic necessities amid the coronavirus lockdown could adversely impact the recent upward swing in Indians applying to study in the UK.
According to official UK statistics, Indian student numbers choosing to study at UK universities have been consistently on an upward swing in recent years. Earlier this year, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that over 37,500 Indian students received a Tier 4 (Study) visa in 2019, which marks a 93 per cent increase from the previous year and the largest number of visas issued in the Tier 4 category to Indians over the last eight years. As a result, education has been widely acknowledged as among the success stories for UK-India ties, with the figures expected to only multiply as the new post-study work visa, or the Graduate Route, came into force for the 2020-2021 intake of overseas students - giving them the much-coveted option to be able to gain work experience at the end of a degree course.
The coronavirus pandemic has cast a shadow over this optimistic rise in international students that was observed last year.
However, the coronavirus pandemic has cast a shadow over this optimistic picture, with several Indian students struggling to access Covid-19 hardship funds set up by universities to help out international students facing financial constraints amid job losses.
The Unis Resist Border Controls and Migrants' Rights Network found a “woeful lack of support structures” in place within UK higher education for international students in the country on the Tier 4 visa, with many too afraid to seek out help when needed for fear that this may impact upon their immigration status. In a survey conducted among students from 28 countries across 31 universities in June at the peak of the pandemic lockdown, 54 per cent of the respondents were from India and many of them reported being rejected for hardship funds and some having to resort to free food banks to save costs.
“I′ve paid my full fees in this year but I′m at risk in paying rent and finding money for food because of no job,” said one Indian student from the University of Bedfordshire.
“As international students we are suffering from financial hardship as a result of Covid-19. We don't have part time jobs and our family members are unable to support us in this pandemic. At the moment we are forced to use [the] food bank and [are] struggling with accommodation costs. In this current situation what we [are] going through is causing us mental distress,” added another student, also anonymously as part of 'The Effects Of Covid-19 On Tier 4 International Students' study released in August.
The National Indian Students and Alumni Union UK (NISAU-UK) said the findings resonate with their own experiences working and supporting Indian students through the lockdown.
“It's really saddening that many international students have fallen through the safety net. Mostly affected are those students who tend to use part time income to help with living expenses,” said NISAU UK Chair Sanam Arora.
“Going forward, we will be calling for bilateral governmental agreements that can guarantee the wellbeing of our Indian students studying in the countries they go to, including in the UK,” she said.
On the back of their study, Unis Resist Border Controls (URBC), a UK-wide campaign, has joined hands with the Migrants' Rights Network (MRN) to campaign for Tier 4 international students, including seeking a tuition fee amnesty from UK universities minister Michelle Donelan. They have written with their findings to UK Home Secretary Priti Patel, urging the minister to end the government's no recourse to public funds (NRPF) policy for all migrants, particularly Tier 4 international students.
“The world is watching how the UK treats its Tier 4 students. If you neglect them in this critical moment, you will be doing irreversible damage that will further tarnish what remains of UK higher education,” notes the letter, backed by hundreds of students, lecturers, parliamentarians and activists.
Universities UK International (UUKi), a representative group for the UK's leading universities, sympathised with the “particular challenges” faced by international students and pledged to continue working through a #WeAreTogether campaign to offer advice and support.
“Our advice to any student who is struggling would be to contact their university about their situation. Universities will be able to talk to them about the range of support available, including any hardship funding and/or government support for which they are eligible,” said UUKi Assistant Director Andy Howells.
“Contacting their university to seek hardship support will not impact on an individual's immigration status,” he said.
The UK government insists that it has taken “extensive action” to assist all migrant groups during the pandemic, including a grace period for visa extensions till the end of this month.
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 £750 million for charities to support the most vulnerable.”