The Covid-19 pandemic has hit British universities extremely hard. The impact of the virus on major source countries like China has disrupted international recruitment, while the disruption caused to A-levels has caused a scramble for domestic students resulting in the return of student number caps.
At the same time, students are feeling the pain. With campus closed and learning shifted online, many students have returned home to their families, whether in the UK or abroad. Many international students in particular, including the ones I represent as International Students’ Officer at Goldsmiths Students’ Union, feel like they’re being ripped off — having paid significantly more than our domestic and EU counterparts, and having already lost 22 days of our valuable education to strike action, Covid-19 is the awful cherry sitting on top of a cake of disappointment.
If you’re thinking “what do international students want”, it’s pretty obvious that finalists and postgraduates want a chance to finish their degree as they were meant to: in person. The current situation is rather far from “adequate”, despite what the government insists. Students want to be attending lessons on campus, not doing hastily scraped-together lessons at weird hours, mostly comprising Zoom calls, free YouTube tutorials and their existing reading lists.
Those of us on practical courses, in particular, have seen severe disruption to our learning. As a digital journalism student, I cannot film the subjects of my work, conduct interviews in person, or even go outside to take photographs of places and people. I know a student who had to scrap her entire Masters project, which she had already spent money and made significant progress on, because it involved having people interact with her work in public spaces.
No amount of online classes will “adequately” replace the practical and social aspect of learning that this year’s finalists and postgraduates are being denied, possibly for the last time in their lives. The job market isn’t doing international students any favours, either. Graduate employers are reducing their intake for 2020-21 as a result of the crisis. While graduation season is not yet upon us, it is likely that those international students who had meticulously planned out their career in the UK will soon realise they’ll have to shelve those plans.
So what if there was a way to help students and universities, all at once?
Finding the opportunity in crisis
In this time of crisis, the old rules no longer apply. The notoriously tight-fisted Conservative government is now vigorously shaking its magic money tree and, in a calculated move, extending visas for immigrant NHS staff so they can continue to battle COVID-19.
This rule-breaking can benefit universities too. Despite the pandemic, the British government is still determined to push forward with Brexit. This position, combined with COVID-19’s effects on continental Europe, means the predicted post-Brexit skills and labour shortage is still likely to hit as the economy gets back into gear after the pandemic. The role of universities in providing skilled labour for the workforce will be paramount, and it is in the public interest that they survive and continue to do so. To do so, however, will require a bit of ingenuity.
I previously wrote about a Singapore-style tuition grant scheme for international students in the UK. In brief, that scheme would have allowed universities to bid for a fixed pool of government grants, each worth up to the maximum home undergraduate tuition loan, which would be used to offer subsidised places to international students in exchange for a work requirement after graduation. While that scheme in its original incarnation was primarily a means of solving the UK’s persistent skills shortage, a similar scheme in the time of coronavirus could be used to retain students, especially high-value international students, and offer a way out of this crisis.
The first element would be allowing all finalists and one-year postgraduates, including international students, to apply to retake half a year of study to make up for lost time due to Covid-19. To reduce overcrowding, this would mean having universities set aside additional reserved places for these “returning” students and requiring students to “apply” for these places, which would begin in January 2021.
This would also mean extending the existing visas of these international students to cover the entire period of their studies, including the period between their expiry and the start of their retake. Under the current rules, Tier 4 visas tend to expire around October for finalists, and around January for one-year postgraduates (or March, for those at institutions under the Tier 4 visa pilot scheme). Like has been done for our valuable NHS workers, these visa extensions should be completely free of charge. This saves international students, and the already overtaxed visa application system, from the struggle of a complete reapplication.
The final part of this scheme would be the tuition grant. The student would pay half a year’s worth of fees, given as a full grant by the government for domestic students, or up to the equivalent home fee level for international students. In exchange for this, and the free-of-charge visa extension, international students would be required to work for a UK company, or to become self-employed as an incorporated company in the UK, for a fixed period of time before they can work outside the country. The Graduate Route, which offers two-year post-study work visas for international students, should be automatically extended to recipients of the tuition grant to facilitate this.
Everyone’s a winner
This benefits universities, the government, employers and students. It provides universities with a source of income to mitigate the loss of domestic students, while allowing the government to fend off a politically damaging university sector collapse without a straight bailout. It allows students a chance to polish up their skill sets and postpone entry into the labour market until conditions are more favourable, while giving employers a wider pool of skilled graduates to draw upon when the pandemic is over.
The key challenge here is time. There is not very much of it — only a few short months lie between now and January 2021. Yet there is still hope; the major shake-up of admissions that is coming provides a key opportunity for the government, universities, and employers to work together on innovative solutions to stem the sector’s losses.
If the key players act fast enough, however, international students might just save British universities.