International students from outside the EU are the financial backbone of the UK higher education sector. Income from their fees helps to subsidise places for home students, funds research projects and enables us to sustain and expand vital services.
Without them many universities would fold. Since March, Covid-19 has tested most sections of society and left a trail of financial devastation in its wake. This has been no different for some international students, who have in substantial numbers been left trapped in this country over the summer and unable to afford flights back home. In the most extreme cases, they have been unable to feed themselves.
This is sadly true of many people during the pandemic, but unlike almost every other section of society, international students have no recourse to public funds – left largely to fend for themselves. That should lead us to pose a simple question. Given the UK has relied on international students for decades, are we failing them, now that they need us?
A complex picture
As I write this, universities are grappling with an issue that is both complex and fluid. Different nations have been impacted by, and have responded to, the virus in different ways. The sad reality is that some of those who were scheduled to take up their places later this month may now no longer be able to do so. Others may no longer want to. One thing is certain – the numbers arriving in our lecture halls will be lower than in previous years, and in some cases likely to be significantly lower than institutions would like.
Whilst it is not uncommon for the public to assume that all international students come from wealthy backgrounds (how else could they afford such exorbitant fees?), the reality is much more nuanced. Many arrive here from humble beginnings and are only able to live and study in the UK thanks to scholarships awarded to them on the basis of their academic talents. As businesses, charities, governments and other institutions who sponsor these individuals struggle with financial crises of their own, some of these sponsorships have become unsustainable – leaving those reliant on them in extremely precarious situations.
The majority of foreign students arrive here funded by their families. But families across the world, including many who were hitherto relatively affluent, are finding their own sources of income to have shrunk or disappeared over the last six months. Where once they might have been able to cover tuition fees, rent and living costs – costs which are often significantly higher than in their own countries – many no longer can.
In the six years I have worked in higher education, I have never seen anything on this scale. As the manager of an SU advice service, I have seen a 200 per cent increase in demand for our hardship fund (one of two that LSE students can access) versus the equivalent period last year. And we are already a third of the way through our fund for 2020/21, with the first day of term still several weeks away.
Of course, as a students’ union, our pot is much smaller than our university’s. Anecdotally, however, it is clear that what we are seeing is reflective of a much broader and alarming trend, and the few figures released from other institutions so far (Swansea University – 190%; Cardiff Metropolitan – 125%) all indicate the same thing – student hardship is rising at an unsustainable rate.
There is a cliché about statistics that talks of how people can get lost in the numbers, in the process forgetting that behind those figures lie actual people, each one with their own individual story. And in the case of students in hardship, what experience has taught me is that very often those stories are heart-breaking.
This year alone I have seen students trapped in isolation for months because they could not afford a flight back home, racking up rent arrears, surviving on a single meal a day, or less. Students that are literally dependent on hardship funds, food banks and charitable donations to see it through from one day to the next.
A special case
It would be tempting to argue that hardship is an issue for all students and that the plight of those with home or EU status is equally worthy of attention. But international students have an important separate case that deserves to be made, partly because some of the ways in which they are impacted are unique.
- They have no recourse to public funds, which means that if their parents, guardians or sponsors can no longer afford to fund them, they become entirely reliant on the generosity of others to survive.
- They also have limits on the number of hours they can work, meaning that they are less able to work their way through their difficulties.
- Many international students, unlike most (but not all) of their home peers, are also unable to find guarantors. In practice this means that unless they have six months’ worth of rent to hand, they will be unable to put a roof over their heads.
Universities and students’ unions, where they have been able to, have helped. But it is important to note that they, like most other institutions in most other sectors, have been hit hard by this global health emergency and are currently engaged in widespread cost-cutting exercises. And money allocated to a hardship fund is often money taken away from another, often just-as-important important service.
In any case, hardship funds are (usually) there to support short-term financial shocks, not to provide long-term support. That’s what scholarships and bursaries are for, and unfortunately whilst those are high in demand, they are often short in supply. It is for this reason that some students in desperate need of aid have tragically found their hardship applications denied.
The truth is that this is an area where the government could and should be doing more. Allowing international students temporary access to benefits would be a good start, but that should not preclude them from aspiring to find a more holistic solution to a complicated problem.
It’s not as if the government wasn’t warned about this. As far back as April, NUS was reporting that 80% of students were worried about how they would manage financially as a result of coronavirus, with 72% also concerned about their ability to cover their rent. There are multiple competing and equally worthy calls for financial assistance that the Treasury must attend to – but the case for helping these students makes sense not only in a moral sense, but economically too.
According to a 2018 report by London Economics, each non-EU international student brings £102,000 to the British economy. Not only do these students fund our universities and enable us to take on world-leading research projects, they also power our economy and bring with them immeasurable social and cultural benefits. We have relied on international students for decades, and when the times were good and it suited us, we were happy to take their money.
Now that they’re in need, isn’t it time we returned the favour?