Several Indian students have been struggling to access Covid-19 hardship funds set up by universities to help out international students facing financial constraints amid job losses due to the coronavirus lockdown, a study into migrant students has found.
The Unis Resist Border Controls and Migrants' Rights Network found a "woeful lack of support structures" in place within UK higher education for international students in the country on the Tier 4 visa, with many too afraid to seek out help when needed for fear that this may impact upon their immigration status. In a survey conducted among students from 28 countries across 31 universities in June at the peak of the pandemic lockdown, 54 per cent of the respondents were from India and many of them reported being rejected for hardship funds and some having to resort to free food banks to save costs. "I've paid my full fees this year but I'm at risk in paying rent and finding money for food because of no job," said one Indian male student from the University of Bedfordshire.
"As international students we are suffering from financial hardship as a result of Covid-19. We don't have part time jobs and our family members are unable to support us in this pandemic. At the moment we are forced to use [the] food bank and [are] struggling with accommodation costs. In this current situation what we [are] going through is causing us mental distress," added another male student, also anonymously as part of 'The Effects Of Covid-19 On Tier 4 International Students' study released this month.
The National Indian Students and Alumni Union UK (NISAU-UK) said the findings resonate with their own experiences working and supporting Indian students through the lockdown. "It's really saddening that many international students have fallen through the safety net. Mostly affected are those students who tend to use part time income to help with living expenses," said NISAU UK Chair Sanam Arora.
"Going forward, we will be calling for bilateral governmental agreements that can guarantee the well being of our Indian students studying in the countries they go to, including in the UK," she said. On the back of their study, Unis Resist Border Controls (URBC), a UK-wide campaign, has joined hands with the Migrants' Rights Network (MRN) to campaign for Tier 4 international students, including seeking a tuition fee amnesty from UK universities minister Michelle Donelan.
They have written with their findings to UK Home Secretary Priti Patel, urging the minister to end the government's no recourse to public funds (NRPF) policy for all migrants, particularly Tier 4 international students. "The world is watching how the UK treats its Tier 4 students. If you neglect them in this critical moment, you will be doing irreversible damage that will further tarnish what remains of UK higher education," notes the letter, backed by hundreds of students, lecturers, parliamentarians and activists. "This (NRPF) means that Tier 4 students are unable to get universal credit, housing support and a myriad of other funds that can act as a life-line to prevent them from becoming destitute during these difficult circumstances," it reads.
Indian-origin Opposition Labour MP Nadia Whittome, who is among those backing the campaign, expressed her "solidarity" with international students. "At no time should this be happening, but it is particularly cruel during a global pandemic. I hope that the entire policy of No Recourse to Public Funds is reassessed in light of COVID-19," she said.
Universities UK International (UUKi), a representative group for the UK's leading universities, sympathised with the "particular challenges" faced by international students and pledged to continue working through a #WeAreTogether campaign to offer advice and support. "Our advice to any student who is struggling would be to contact their university about their situation. Universities will be able to talk to them about the range of support available, including any hardship funding and/or government support for which they are eligible," said UUKi Assistant Director Andy Howells.
"Contacting their university to seek hardship support will not impact on an individual's immigration status," he said. The government said that it has taken "extensive action" to assist all migrant groups during the pandemic, including a grace period for visa extensions till the end of this month.
A government spokesperson said: "We have been clear that nobody should find themselves destitute during this crisis due to circumstances beyond their control, with students able to apply for hardship funds. Extensive action to support those with no recourse to public funds has also been taken, such as rent protections, the Job Retention Scheme, the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme and allocating 750 million pounds for charities to support the most vulnerable."