Overseas Students in the UK Share their Experience During Covid-19 Lockdown

Alexandra Dinning and Hakeem Faraj

Palak Dalal was forced to leave the UK at 48 hours’ notice when India announced a ban on all flights until the middle of April. She had also had to deal with the consequences of potentially spreading the virus further. At the time of speaking, she was self-isolating at her parents’ house and feared it may affect her learning: “with this constant fear of symptoms showing over the next 14 days, I don’t know how I’m going to get started on my studies”, she said.

Palak, 25, is a university student, one of hundreds of thousands hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many universities shut their doors before the nationwide lockdown, and it seems likely that the first semester of the next academic year will take place entirely online.

While there has been extensive government guidance on how various groups in the country can get financial and practical support, university students have been a glaring omission—with many feeling their institutions are not offering adequate assistance to them.

Although the entire student cohort has suffered the shockwaves of the pandemic, some have felt them more than others. One of the biggest subgroups is the international student community, who are paying an even higher price than they expected for the privilege of a UK qualification.

The question of travel has been at the forefront of the minds of many international students. Great numbers have left the country for their own, braving the difficulties that ensue when travelling internationally during a pandemic. The UK has only recently changed its comparatively laissez-faire attitude to border control, with an enforced quarantine at all airports only announced in May.

This is something that has faced much criticism, with many other countries have enforcing much stricter conditions to those flying into them—which many international students have had to contend with.

Some students tell their stories during lockdown

Nazhad Hussein faced severe limitations when he went back to Kurdistan. “I was sent to a mandatory quarantine for 17 days, and I didn’t have access to proper internet and other things”. He said that due to this, he missed some of his online lessons at the end of the semester.

On returning to his home city, he found out that he had managed to take the last flight there. He feared being separated from his wife and young children at this difficult time. “I didn’t want to leave them in this situation… them being in Kurdistan without me would be very, very hard”.

Palak and Nazhad do not represent everyone, however; some students have not been able to leave the country at all, despite their best efforts. “In the past month I haven’t studied anything—I’ve been too busy chasing the Iraqi government to take me home!”, said Sana Daresh, 27, from Kurdistan. She has tried to make up for it by being in long distance contact with her family— “I try to talk to them most of the time”.

Flights are only part of the travel issue. As time goes on, visas may become a more pressing issue for many, as Nick Hillman of the Higher Education Policy institute points out.

“If you can’t get home to whatever country you come from, you might inadvertently breach the conditions of your visa”, he said.

“That’s a challenge for the Home Office… bureaucracy doesn’t always work how it’s meant to”.

Full interview with Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute— an independent body for shaping higher education policy debate. Hillman has previously worked for Lord Willetts, a former minister of Universities and Science.

In the meantime, there are the smaller day-to-day challenges to deal with. Financial concerns have emerged for some, especially those who rely on part time (and often hospitability based) work to supplement their living costs.

In the United States, it has been reported some international students faced with mounting debts have been forced to turn to food banks. Although not as many students in the UK have reported such severe destitution, money is still a source of worry for many.

Samraj Adaikkalam, 26, from south India, worked in a restaurant before lockdown, and he was not sure whether he was eligible for furlough, as he had only worked there for five months.

“It has been crazy, and I am really struggling. I’m still I’m hoping that I’ll get it, at least then I could cover my rent for the next month or two”.

“This is the same scenario for many of my friends who came from outside the UK. We don’t know how to cover our expenses until our course is completed”, he continued.

Others have been looking to their universities to compensate for the loss of resources, including Hisham Muhammad, 26, from India.

“We have paid this huge amount—what’s the purpose in doing it all online? The fees for distance learning are less than the face to face classes”, he said.

While many international students have clearly faced more difficulties than many domestic students and British nationals, much of the community has been preoccupied how COVID-19 has affected the international student community is through day-to-day affairs which concern everyone.

Those remaining in the UK were keen to stress the importance of maintaining good mental health under isolating lockdown conditions.

“I live alone and sometimes [when] I feel like my thoughts are getting me down, walking, running, all this stuff just helps”, says Zahra Daweri, 27, from Iraq. “I live near the university park, so I feel lucky!”.

Others bemoaned not being able to enjoy being outside, something to which most of us can relate. 

“The thing that annoys me most is the weather”, said Masoud Ahmad, 27, from Kurdistan, “because when the quarantine started the weather started to get better every day… sunshine now is different. I think everything that is forbidden is sweet somehow”.

In our poll, the vast majority (64%) reported only facing minor difficulties because of the pandemic, so it is perhaps to be expected that many are focused on the more general issues it brings. However, this does not downplay the larger problems faced by a significant minority of the international student community, and the impact that its probable diminishment may have on UK universities.

A poll in a Facebook group runs by overseas students

The personal cost for everyone has been high and unsurprisingly, it is being matched by the price paid at an institutional level. Universities have warned of severe financial losses in the coming academic year. Much of this is through a projected downturn in international students, and it may lead to them asking for government bailouts—although it is not just profit that is the worrying them.

“International students bring diversity to campuses; they don’t just bring money”, said Hillman.

He points out that domestic students value and may miss the contribution of their international counterparts, as “they’re going to leave University and go into a global labour market”.

From the perspective of universities, this means research suffering, on top of student numbers—Hillman noted that large numbers of people come to the UK for postgraduate research opportunities. In the 2017-18 academic year, as many as 46,355 international students were studying in the UK for this reason.

It may be too early to predict when UK universities will become as attractive an option as it they been in previous years. Those who have already seen their degrees interrupted by the pandemic have mixed feelings as to whether they regret studying abroad.

Nazhad takes a measured approach: “the situation was unexpected and there were seven months [of the academic year] when we didn’t know it was going to happen”.

Samraj, meanwhile, is dissatisfied in choosing to come here this year, as he feels his value for money has been compromised.

“I’m a science student and most of my module is lab work, which I won’t be able to do”, he said, adding his frustration at his final project changing from new product development to purely theoretical work.

One of the most important reasons behind deciding to study in another country is the opportunity it promises, something that has now been compromised for even the most privileged of students. Undue stress and disappointment may have been inevitabilities, but the international student community has worked hard to mitigate them. The long-term repercussions this will have on them, and on the institutions they study at is yet to be determined.

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