'One of the reasons international students have faced such difficulties is because of their restricted access to stable sources of support in the UK.'PHOTO CREDIT: LEV DOGLACHOV

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the particularly precarious position of international students, both in Cambridge and across the UK. At the beginning of the first lockdown in March, many Cambridge colleges pressured international students to vacate their accommodation at very short notice, just as many countries began to close their borders. This move contradicted both government recommendations against travel, and reassurances by the University that students would not be forced to leave their colleges. From couch surfing in the homes of UK-based friends, to spending thousands of pounds on last-minute travel arrangements to return to their home countries, international students have been under immense logistical and financial pressures — all while struggling to look after their mental health.

“International students have been under immense logistical and financial pressures — all while struggling to look after their mental health.”

One of the reasons international students have faced such difficulties is because of their restricted access to stable sources of support in the UK. Aside from being cut off from friends and family, international students stranded in the UK are legally barred from accessing state support due to their immigration status — a policy known as “no recourse to public funds,” or NRPF — and many have thus been plunged into extreme financial hardship. In these circumstances, other students have often had to step in to help. The Indian National Students’ Association, for example, was forced to set up an emergency food distribution network, which by May had supported over 3,000 Indian students trapped in the UK who could no longer afford to eat. When Lucy Cavendish started charging international students £600 to have their belongings packed and shipped to them, students staying in the College volunteered to perform these services instead, in exchange for a much lower cost or even a charitable donation.

As this year’s sabbatical officers at Cambridge SU, we’ve spent the past few months dealing with the pandemic and its impact on the University community. In preparation for the start of Michaelmas term we’ve held a number of consultations with international student and cultural society representatives, and what we’ve heard about the challenges ahead has been immensely concerning.

As the International Students’ Campaign’s (ISC) recent Open Letter makes clear, the University’s stringency when it comes to remote teaching and learning arrangements, as well as the continued vagueness of its planned health and safety measures, have left all students, especially international students, in a precarious limbo. The Collegiate University is demanding that these students sacrifice the relative security of life in their home countries, and pay huge amounts of money for travel and accommodation for the government-mandated 14-day quarantine period. We spoke to several students from Thailand — where the current number of new infections per day is less than 10 — who were worried that during a UK second wave, they would be unable to return home; and that if infected, they would not be prioritised by the NHS due to their immigration status. In return for their concerns, they are offered inconsistent guidance and hollow insistences that they hopefully won’t catch the virus. There is a justified perception that the University and colleges lack both the care and the competence to adequately support international students. The attitude of most university staff is this: don’t ask questions because we have no answers, just return to Cambridge, pay your rent and fees, and collect your degree no matter what.

“There is a justified perception that the University and colleges lack both the care and the competence to adequately support international students.”

To an extent, the treatment of international students as compliant cash cows is conditioned by their inability to speak out or take action as a result of their precarious immigration status. During the UCU strikes, there was considerable confusion over whether international students’ Tier 4 visas permitted them to boycott lectures and supervisions. Typically, it’s also been quite easy for most students to overlook the concerns of their overseas counterparts because of stereotypes that they are all extremely wealthy and that, consequently, they don’t deserve to have any complaints about their lives here. Of course, those who are capable of paying the exorbitantly high overseas tuition fees (ranging from £21,000 to £57,000 per year) alongside the higher ‘college fees’ (up to £10,000 per year) out of pocket are more likely than not to be financially privileged, even by British standards.

“Typically, it’s also been quite easy for most students to overlook the concerns of their overseas counterparts because of stereotypes that they are all extremely wealthy and that, consequently, they don’t deserve to have any complaints about their lives here.”

But Cambridge is home to 9,807 international students — around 40% of the total student population — and a homogenised perception of this group disregards the enormous disparities that exist within this category. For one, many international students, and particularly postgraduates, are able to attend only through scholarship or studentship support; for another, Cambridge’s inordinate international prestige means that many students’ places here are sponsored by the financial investment of their entire family and friend networks. Compared with the government loan or University bursary for which Home undergraduate students are eligible, these financial resources are highly insecure. And from the countless students who have lived their lives in the UK but don’t qualify for Home fees due to their immigration status, to the near-total absence of dedicated funding for students from African countries, the reality is far more complex than the stereotypes suggest.

Crucially, what these stereotypes obscure is that the stark barriers to widening participation structuring the current set-up of UK higher education are the result of a fee regime which treats students solely as consumers, with international and postgraduate fees as a subsidy for Home undergraduate education. If international students are comparatively wealthier as a group, it’s because the UK’s marketised higher education system and punitive immigration regime together produce almost insurmountable barriers to international access. As a result, these students also feel the effects of a crisis like the pandemic first and most severely.

The demands laid out in the ISC’s Open Letter recognise that the source of this fiasco lies not in the personal circumstances of individual students, but rather in their precarious position in the British higher education ‘market’ as unprotected consumers. What international students are asking for is to be regarded as fellow members of a community who deserve basic standards of care and compassion, rather than as compliant sources of financial supply to be yanked around and leaned on as the University and colleges wish. Nowhere is this clearer than on the issue of accommodation, where many international students fear they will be dragged across the world to come to Cambridge only to be kicked out again in the event of a second lockdown. In a recent statement published on 18th August, the University reassured students that “colleges are committed to providing accommodation on a case-by-case basis to all students who do not have any other home to go to.” By simply recycling its stance from the March lockdown and again giving colleges full discretion over matters as basic as accommodation, the University has shown that it has not learned from its past mistakes.

“Many international students fear they will be dragged across the world to come to Cambridge only to be kicked out again in the event of a second lockdown.”

It’s past time for colleges to step up and take responsibility for the students under their care. We believe that anything less than a concrete assurance from all colleges that any student who opts to remain in their accommodation in the event of a future lockdown will be allowed to do so jeopardises students’ wellbeing and welfare. Wolfson’s latest policy on accommodation which guarantees that “the College will not ask students to vacate their rooms in any future lockdown,” and St Edmund’s decision to house over 150 students from other colleges in its premises during the March lockdown, provide examples of good practice which the University should be encouraging all colleges to follow.

Already some colleges, such as Emmanuel and Newnham, have taken the lead on this by committing to waive the extra costs of rents and bills for quarantining students. Other colleges, such as St Edmund’s, St John’s, Clare Hall, and Wolfson, have maintained regular channels of communication and contact with student representatives to facilitate transparency and ease their anxieties as much as possible. Jesus, meanwhile, has told students that they will provide meals for them during quarantine to avoid transmission through the use of shared facilities. The ISC’s Open Letter and our own statement of support call for such examples of ‘good practice’ to be the norm rather than the exception. As their treatment during the previous lockdown has demonstrated, international students can’t be expected to simply trust the goodwill and competence of individual college decision makers.

Colleges such as Emmanuel and Newnham, have committed to waive the extra costs of rents and bills for quarantining students.CREDIT: PAUL DYKES

As students prepare to return to Cambridge, they will need concrete commitments that their health and wellbeing are in safe hands and that their futures and lives won’t be put at risk. This is particularly true for students for whom the magnitude of risk is greater: not just international students, but also care-experienced and estranged students, students with immunocompromised family members, and so on. Fundamentally, the Open Letter’s contents concern all students. By spotlighting the basic safeguarding responsibilities of the Collegiate University, it demands better not just for international students, but also for the whole Cambridge community.

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