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Taskforce for international student support launched

This week brought a glimmer of light and some hope to international students finding it tough to continue their studies in the UK. A taskforce to coordinate support for international students was launched on Tuesday by Universities UK international (UUKi), London Higher and the University of East London. It is late in the academic year for this to happen, but it will be welcome news for all international students across the UK. TEFS has called for the government to set up a task force to coordinate support for all students since last summer and this move at last acknowledges the plight that many find themselves in. Those who are a long way from home are particularly vulnerable if their income dries up. It is only right that all students, including international students, are considered together when hardship support is needed. But despite government policy it seems what happens on the ground is a long way from being adequate. The conclusions are that support is variable across the sector, and there is not enough funding to match a need that is underestimated and not well quantified.

A posting this week, by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) alerted us to a new initiative on student support. On Tuesday, the first meeting in London of a taskforce to “consider best practice for supporting international student hardship during the COVID-19 pandemic” took place. This was reported by HEPI in a postscript to an excellent article ‘Supporting students in times of hardship’. The starting point to “Co-ordinating a framework of support” calls for “Equal eligibility for home and international students for hardship funds” and “Emergency support in place daily to ensure no student in hardship goes hungry”. This is in response to mounting evidence that there have been severe problems since the start of the academic year.

The need for coordination and a taskforce is obvious and hopefully UUKi will move quickly on this. However, it is also clear that there should have been government driven coordination, and a student support taskforce, from last summer in anticipation of something that was inevitable. TEFS called for this back in June 2021 in an open letter to the Universities Ministers across the UK jurisdictions (see TEFS 19th June 2021 ‘Open Letter to UK Government Ministers - taskforce on student support urgently needed’ and more recently TEFS 5th February 2021 ‘Why a student support task force is needed’ ). The current situation was inevitable but not planned for.

Background to the need.

That many overseas students in UK universities are finding it difficult to stay the course because of financial difficulties comes as little surprise. The latest data shows there were 538,600 in 2019/20 (22% of the total student population) with an estimated income in excess of £16.0 billion (Another excellent overview report from the House of Commons Library team on Monday ‘International and EU students in higher education in the UK’). By far the largest number are from China at 102,000 with 143,000 from the various EU countries and 395,6000 from other countries.

They fit into many different categories in terms of financial support. Although universities all ask for evidence that they can support themselves and pay fees during their time in the UK, many end up taking part-time jobs. The system allows them to work for up to 20 hours per week during term time and this is commonplace. This simple fact means many arrive without the means to fully support themselves throughout their stay. They may be supported by their families, have state funded scholarships, or other support from private enterprises of charities, but this may fall short. Any lecturer or tutor who has met a student in their office who fears failure on a course because they cannot, or dare not, go home will understand the pressures. Their families may have taken out large loans to support them and it is going wrong. A dip in income at home during the COVID crisis, linked to struggles coping with online teaching, will only exacerbate the situation.

The need for proactive Government policy.

In normal times, there is no expectation that the governments in the UK must support overseas students who should be self-funded. Indeed such students must declare this before arriving. However, these are not normal times and the COVID crisis has uncovered serious problems with this approach. This was evident last August in a survey reported by the Migrant Rights Network entitled ‘The Effects of Covid-19 on Tier 4 International Students’. Some were receiving hardship funds from their universities whilst others were rejected and using food banks. They concluded that “There is a woeful lack of support structures in place within UK higher education for tier 4 international students.” This was compounded by the realisation that “Some tier 4 students are too afraid to seek out help when needed for fear that this may impact upon their immigration status”. At the time, this applied to students already in the UK at the start of the COVID crisis and who no longer had part-time jobs or had lost income from their families. Those starting in September 2020 would also have to declare their income was sufficient to support their studies. However, the UK government was then promising to reopen the economy and thus release more part-time jobs. The recent extended lockdown dashed their hope and with it the income for many students, international or otherwise. The deteriorating situation was clearly set out in the Financial Times back on the 17th of January with ‘Overseas students rely on UK food banks in virus jobs shutdown’. They observed that “there are no official statistics on the problem” and this lack of awareness by the government lies at the root of failure to act in time.

The paradox of policy vs reality.

The first port of call for overseas students is the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA). Indeed, links to this organisation are on nearly every university student support www site. They stress that the Office for Students (OfS) designates international students as 'vulnerable' and thus eligible for support. This is a key policy decision that goes back to government policy in England from the outset of the crisis. The OfS guidance expects that all vulnerable students have “Guaranteed appropriate accommodation” and “Continued access to established financial support, and to immediate hardship funding if necessary”.

The most recent update of Government policy on the 6th February 2021, ‘International Education Strategy: 2021 update: Supporting recovery, driving growth’ stresses the need for support for international students across the UK. This requirement was included in guidance from the Universities Minister in letters accompanying extra funding on the 14th of December 2020 and the 2nd of February 2021. She expected universities to “have flexibility in how they distribute the funding to students” and “funding can be distributed to a wider population of higher education students than those counted in the student premium funding methods including, for example, postgraduates (whether taught or research), international students and others that do not meet the definition of ‘OfS fundable”. This casts the net very wide and puts pressure on a fund that is relatively small. The distribution of funds by the OfS to each university in England shows how thinly spread the support is. The average per university of the £20 million released in December is £59,321. Post 92 institutions were allocated greater amounts with the highest given to Coventry University at £438,787. The latest release of £50 million has yet to be allocated.

The conclusion is that there is not enough funding to match a need that is not well quantified. This is compounded by the fact that support is variable across the sector.

Does not apply to all the UK.

Until Wednesday of this week, the situation in Scotland was a striking outlier. Although universities here offered some financial help to overseas students, it seems the government allocations were not a source. Instead, like most universities across the UK, individual universities launched appeals at the start of the academic year (e.g. St Andrews Covid-19 Appeal that promises some help for students alongside other priorities). In comparison to England, the Scottish government has released more hardship funding pro rata. However, it only announced this week that these could be released to international students. This now looks like it was a serious oversight.

There are restrictions that deflate the promise.

The small level of financial support available to most universities, particularly in England, means tight restrictions are inevitable.

UKCISA advise “If you have financial difficulties, let your education provider or Students' Union know and ask if they can help you in any way. International students are defined by the Office for Students as vulnerable, which means that you should have guaranteed appropriate accommodation, immediate access to hardship funds if necessary, and support with obtaining food, cleaning and medical supplies”.

But there is a crucial caveat added with “If the financial hardship has been avoidable (for example, if you started the course knowing that you did not have enough money or that the funds from home would not last), there is probably nothing an adviser can do. You might have to consider returning home.”

There are multiple variations in approach that means there should have been a common coordinated system from the start. Some have merged their support into existing hardship procedures. Others have separated their COVID related or international student support into a separate procedure. One thing in common is that the level of support per student is capped. This can range from as low as £250 to £1000 one off payments. However, a few would consider going higher if a case could be made. All require a detailed review of the need but only after the funding in the country of origin has been approached first. If there is still hardship, then bank statements and rental agreements are needed. There is no general sense that there may be some urgency.

The Catch 22 rule.

Universities invite overseas students to ask for help. However, many fear that doing this after starting without enough funds at the outset will put their position in jeopardy. They are caught in a classic dilemma.  By asking for help, they risk all. But, by not asking for help they still risk all. Indeed, most started in 2020/21 thinking there would be jobs available only to find the opposite was the case. They simply find they cannot win.

The UKCISA advises starkly that “If the financial hardship has been avoidable (for example, if you started the course knowing that you did not have enough money or that the funds from home would not last), there is probably nothing an adviser can do. You might have to consider returning home”.

It turns out that most universities adhere to this policy. Indeed, some exclude support for students who started in 2020/21.

One university states “Applications from 1st year Tier 4 students will be considered but it is unlikely that they will be made an award. This is because they would have had to provide evidence that they have made adequate provision to pay their tuition fees and living costs before they started their course.” 

Others are less restrictive such as “In order to be eligible to apply, you must be able to demonstrate that unforeseen financial difficulties have occurred after you started your course with adequate funds arranged to cover tuition fees and living costs for the entire duration of the course”. 

The result for many overseas students is that this is a blocked route and it’s next stop the food bank.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. He has served on the Senate and Finance and planning committee of a Russell Group University.

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