The exploitation of migrant students needs to stop

Sanaz Raji is founder and caseworker for Unis Resist Border Controls (URBC)

At the start of the second lockdown, Timur (not their real name), a migrant student at a Russell Group university, contacted Unis Resist Border Controls (URBC) – a national campaign made of migrant lecturers, students and activists opposed to the hostile environment policy in UK higher education – asking for help because they were unable to pay the final instalment, £6,000 of their £20,000 tuition fees.

For weeks on end, Timur received threatening emails from the university, indicating that if they failed to pay the remaining instalment of their tuition fee in order to complete the registration process, that they would be withdrawn from the programme.

A withdrawal would have put Timur’s precarious immigration status into jeopardy, meaning that their student visa would have been curtailed and they would have to voluntarily leave the UK or face deportation.

Timur was already dealing with a number of other family issues: their mother had recently become severely disabled due to an accident, while their father was having financial problems brought on because of the global pandemic and was having enormous difficulties supporting Timur in the UK, and siblings at back home.

When money dried up, Timur was forced to do dangerous and highly exploitative gig economy work just to afford their rent and very basic necessities. At times, URBC gave Timur emergency funds to help them get by.

Already Timur was sharing a room with another fellow student who sympathized with their plight and didn’t want to see them homeless.

Timur’s precarity mirrors findings of a study that URBC and the Migrants’ Right Network (MRN) conducted which found that of the migrant students who responded 56% were either destitute or at risk of destitution during the first UK wide lockdown. Sharing a bedroom with another student and living in cramped conditions during the pandemic, along with their financial problems took an enormous mental toll on Timur. They sought out mental health support during this time.

Timur had also sought out support from their SU, but found their advice woefully inadequate and out of touch with the situation on the ground. When Timur came to URBC to seek help, we gave them some suggestions, one being to launch a formal complaint with their university concerning the harassing emails they had received.

However, Timur was terrified of complaining, harbouring the misguided but understandable fear that any complaint might affect their precarious immigration status in the UK. As Timur built up the confidence to finally put in their complaint to the university, their father miraculously secured a loan to pay for the rest of Timur’s tuition fees so that they could graduate on time.

Knowing that Timur’s father was already in massive debt, and having taken out another loan, there is concern that Timur and their family will suffer prolonged financial precarity from this loan and additional debt incurred because of the pandemic.

From the casework that we’ve done prior to and during the start of the pandemic, it is not uncommon for migrant students and their families to go into debilitating debt and find themselves forced into homelessness as a result of exploitative loans taken to pay for expensive UK higher education. This is just one of the many enforced barriers that migrant students experienced while studying in the UK that are rarely discussed in relation to marketised higher education.

Nothing new

The precarity that Timur experienced is not a new occurrence for migrant students. Rather the global pandemic heightened already existing inequalities that migrant students experience resulting from two issues: marketised higher education and draconian border policy.

When Vivienne Stern, Director of Universities UK International was interviewed in March following a Channel 4 News coverage of migrant students destitution, Stern made a claim blaming migrant students for not accessing support structures at their universities, stating,

I would like to say that when a student says to me or I hear a student say I don’t know who to ask in my university for help, it sort of makes me really frustrated because, frankly, I would say to that student,reach out to your student welfare team. They will be in touch with you on a regular basis.”

However, in the same study carried out by URBC and MRN during the start of the pandemic, we found that migrant students had difficulty in accessing welfare guidance and hardship support from their universities. While 87 out of 124 students were made aware that support was available, 36 respondents were not informed of any support structures.

As one respondent, a migrant students from South America studying in London explained in the study, often times when migrant students sought out support from welfare and other pastoral mechanisms, it was university bureaucratic procedures that made it difficult to get urgent assistance,

…I approached my Uni representatives in order to generate pressure for opening emergency funds in support of international students. The funds that [my university] opened were in direct relationship with students going back to their countries. In my case, I was asking for resources in order to [begin] working from home and the application was rejected. [My university asked] me to apply for [another] fund in which the amount of documentation and information needed was much more, [making it] almost impossible [to receive] funds as fast as I needed…”

Additionally, when hardship funds were open to migrant students, our study found that only 13% received financial hardship funds while 15% of migrant students were rejected for financial hardship and another 15% of migrant students received no response to their queries about financial support.

These sobering statistics shows the disingenuous nature of Stern’s remarks and woeful negligence by universities concerning migrant student precarity during the pandemic. URBC was also told by migrant students who contacted us that their university told them that hardship funds were only for home (British) students, not migrant students.

And a URBC member was told by a migrant student that when they tried to access support from a food bank, the food bank took their details, and informed the local university that migrant students should not come to the food bank for support. This in turn put the student in further trouble with their university who were also making threats against their visa status.

A different kind of safety net

Migrant students that approached URBC at the beginning of the first lockdown had recently come to the UK in January 2020 to start their degree programmes. Many of these students were from Hyderabad, India, and were Muslim.

Given the anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Bill passed under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s far-right BJP party, and continued demonisation of Indian Muslims, these students had gone into thousands of pounds of debt in order to be able to use their qualifications in the future to provide a safety net for their families in the wake of continued violent Islamophobic attacks.

Meanwhile, during the second lockdown, some universities went ahead with chartered flights of Chinese students. Currently for this academic year, 50 UK universities have chartered flights this academic year to bring Chinese students into the UK, treating them as a revolving door of funds with little care for their safety and wellbeing.

In the URBC 2019 study on the hostile environment policy, university staff singled out how Chinese and other East Asian students are treated as essentially “cash cows” reflected in this comment to our study from a senior lecturer at a Russell Group university,

In my experience Chinese students are sometimes treated more like numbers than individuals, because they come in large numbers, especially on MA programmes primarily aimed at them, and primarily serving the purpose of a cash cow.”

Student activism?

However, the problems that migrant students are experiencing in the UK are also due to the disappointing lack of knowledge on the part of British student activists, university SUs and the National Union of Students (NUS) about how marketised higher education and the hostile environment policy affect migrant students.

This is unsurprising given that in 2019 in the URBC study on understanding how the hostile environment in UK higher education we found that over half of university staff who responded (already a self-selecting group) had no understanding of how the hostile environment policy functions at their university.

It is also why so much of student activism on tuition fees has continued to be British-centred, exemplified by the #9KForWhat hashtag that makes invisible the fact that migrant students pay far higher tuition fees (in addition to expensive visa and international health surcharge fees), fees that subside the tuition of their British counterparts.

This myopic student activism, whether supported by SUs or grassroots student groupings, can also be seen when 17 Russell Group SU’s supported a 30% Covid tuition fee refund amounting to £2,700 intended for British students who had taken out loans. But what good is a £2,700 tuition fee refund specifically for migrant students who are being threatened with university withdrawals, visa curtailment, and deportation? While URBC launched the #TuitionFeeAmnestyNOW campaign after over 500 lecturers, students and union representatives signed our letter, we still need to see a robust collective response from all SUs on this demand.

Similarly, while URBC was supportive of many of the rent and tuition fee strikes that happened last academic year, there too is a tendency toward myopia in the successes of rent strikes, where in many cases migrant students had their immigration status weaponised against them that in turned forced them into a position that that had no other choice but to pay their tuition and rent fees or face withdrawal and a potential immigration crisis.

With the passing of the Immigration Act of 2020 and the end of EU free movement, EU students will now experience the carceral dynamics of the hostile environment policy in full force, particularly EU students who are Eastern European, Black, and PoC.

URBC has been offering workshops to university staff and SUs on the hostile environment policy and marketised higher education for over five years. While we have made significant inroads with UCU branches, SUs have still been slow to work with URBC. Recently there has been a glimmer of hope – SU student officers from Essex, Nottingham, Sheffield, SOAS, Sussex, and UAL have received the first stage of training from URBC.

We encourage all SU student officers to participate in URBC training workshops (sign up here). Now more than ever, we need to see SUs working with URBC so that students like Timur are not left in violent precarity.

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