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Overseas university students starved by racist rules during coronavirus pandemic

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International students were encouraged to come to Britain despite the pandemic, so universities could make money from them. Now lockdowns, job cuts and a lack of support have left many struggling to survive, reports Sophie Squire
Issue 2742
A long line of students gather outside a food bank in east London
A long line of students gather outside a food bank in east London (Pic: Socialist Worker)

Anamparveen hasn’t got the money to buy food—but her university is still sending emails asking her to pay tuition fees. This desperate situation is the reality of life for international students across Britain who are struggling during the pandemic.

Disgracefully, the Tories are ­overseeing a situation where tens of thousands may be struggling to get enough food.

In Newham, East London, a long line of students gathers four days a week outside a food bank set up specifically to provide them with food.

The Newham Community Project began feeding international students after over a thousand turned up to a local mosque for food during the first lockdown.

Elyas, one of the organisers, told Socialist Worker the charity has been providing food for up to 2,000 people a week. And for many, this is the only food they’ll get in seven days.

Anamparveen, a student at the University of East London, arrived in Britain from India in October 2019. She told Socialist Worker that “wouldn’t eat” if she didn’t go to the food bank.

“I did think I shouldn’t take this food, and save it for someone needier,” she said. “But I can’t buy anything. We became needy people.

“I’m crying all the time. But it’s really hard to tell my family what’s going on. I did tell my sister and she started crying as well.”

Students are angry at how universities have failed to look out for their wellbeing.


Raghav arrived in Britain from India in January last year. “The university told us that there is a fund to help us,” he told Socialist Worker. “But they haven’t reached out. It’s been like this for a year, and we still don’t know who to send an email to.”

When Anamparveen finally got the paperwork to sign up for the university’s hardship fund, she faced demeaning questions. She said, “The university asks you questions like, ‘Have you tried to find all means of employment? Give proof of that.’ Of course, we have tried. There’s no work. My husband has lost jobs due to all the lockdowns.

“I can’t find any way to get help. I don’t think I can get help from the government.”

I can’t buy anything. I’m crying all the time.

UEL student Anamparveen

Universities and the government see international students as a way of making money (see below). So they are welcomed and encouraged to come to Britain. Yet when they arrive, they are met with the Tories’ racist hostile environment.

International students, with a few exceptions, are completely barred from accessing any benefits under the No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) rule.

NRPF has left a million migrants without any access to the money they need to stay alive. It snatched free school meals from migrant children. Now it’s driving international students into hunger.

It isn’t students’ fault that the jobs they may have hoped to rely on to get by have dried up during the pandemic. Being able to access benefits would mean they could buy at least some of what they need.

But none of the students Socialist Worker spoke to in Newham either received benefits or knew of a way to access them. Many said information on where to find help is hard to find—from their universities and from the government.

They are left to rely on charities.


International students are often seen as coming from very rich families. It’s true that the poorest people in the world don’t get to go and study overseas. But the line at the food bank in Newham shows that not every international student is wealthy.

And racist rules drain their resources even further. For instance, international students from outside the European Union can’t access student loans. Instead, as Elyas explained, they are forced to take out “high interest loans” to pay for tuition fees and maintenance.

“University agents promise the world to international students,” Elyas said. “The students think, ‘Wow, this is a great opportunity.’ But really universities don’t care about their welfare.”

Many students queuing in Newham had been awarded scholarships that cover their tuition but not much more.

Kalpesh received a scholarship from the University of Greenwich, and they paid for his flight from India to Britain four months ago. But he told Socialist Worker that the time he has spent here has just been “hard”.

Kalpesh said the university had been good at supporting students, but also recommended that he use the food bank.

The crisis goes well beyond Newham. Elyas said he has received calls from students across Britain asking for help.

In some cases, universities have relied on the charity and goodwill of other students instead of providing help themselves. In Birmingham, for instance, a student set up a food bank on campus to feed students who had lost their jobs last September.

But the assumption that international students have deep pockets makes it easier for them to be forgotten.

Many of the students have described what they are going through as “abandonment”. That’s exactly what it is. Universities and the state have failed because their only concern is to squeeze money out of people, not to meet their needs.

For the desperate students in Newham, that means they either rely on charity or starve.

Names have been changed

Money to bribe students but not to meet their basic needs

Universities lied to international students to persuade them to continue their studies—because international students mean big money.

Fees at public universities are now capped at £9,250. Yet there are no regulations on how much students from outside the European Union can be charged.

That means they can pay as much as £20,000 for just one year of study.

International student Aarav has been in Britain for two months. “They are taking so much money from us,” he told Socialist Worker. “But they are not providing any essentials.”

One report in 2018 found that international students were worth a staggering £20 billion to the British economy. But the pandemic threatened to disrupt this cosy income stream.

Andrew Connors, head of higher education at Lloyds bank, said last year that every university expected to lose out due to the pandemic. “For some the potential loss to income is projected to be greater than £100 million,” he said.

Universities panicked about losing international students. So they persuaded students to return for the next academic year.

Many assured students that campuses would be safe and that there would be in person teaching. They used bribes, too. Some, including the University of Manchester, chartered flights from China to bring students back to their accommodation.

The safe campuses and in person teaching that students were promised never materialised. Students were left trapped in their rooms and denied the university experience they were promised. And for many this has led to loneliness and suffering.

“I wanted to come to university to mingle,” said Amparveen. “But I haven’t been able to do that. I have no friends.


“If I knew we’d just be studying online, I could have done that at home in India with my family.”

Students are right to be angry. Universities can pay for chartered flights to get students back to unsafe campuses but won’t provide financial aid to students in desperate need.

Government policies have encouraged universities to act like businesses.

For over two decades Labour, Tory and coalition governments have hiked up tuition fees to a staggering £9,250 a year for those of British nationality.

Most universities are provided with grants by the government and many are so-called “charitable institutions”.

Universities have raced to expand campuses in order to attract more students, especially from overseas, pouring money into new buildings. They also make money from student accommodation – another motive for luring international students back to campuses.

So, Nottingham Trent University said it would guarantee international students a place in university owned student accommodation this academic year.

The vast amount of money raked in isn’t all used to keep universities running or pay workers good wages. University chancellors often earn up to £500,000 a year. And universities sit on vast reserves. In 2018 they were hoarding over £44 billion.

Boss won’t pay me, now I can’t find my rent

The experience of being an international student can be marred by homesickness, loneliness and language barriers.

Often classes are centred around the knowledge bases of students who grew up in Britain. International students often feel segregated.

For poor students, there are other material drawbacks to studying in Britain. They come from racist rules and exploitative bosses.

Most students hold Tier Four Visas that only allow them to work for 20 hours a week or risk deportation. International students are more likely to suffer unacceptable pay and conditions.

Kabir is an international student at the University of West London. “I was cheated by a boss out of four months’ pay,” he said. “I was working and he just wouldn’t pay me. Now I can’t pay rent but still have to pay the rest of my tuition fees.”

Kabir is paying £12,500 a year in fees. He’s managed £10,000, but can’t pay the rest.

“I don’t think I can stay here because my fees are just too high,” he said.

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