As part of a “clampdown on abuse”, Jeremy Hunt has announced that the NHS will introduce a surcharge of several hundred pounds for international students who come from outside the EU. I find this decision offensive.
It reflects the government’s real opinion of those who choose to spend their formative years in the United Kingdom. You are unwelcome outsiders, it suggests, and will be suspected of abusing access to something as fundamental as public healthcare. Your money, on the other hand, is very welcome indeed.
International students are treated like bottomless reservoirs of cash and expected to manage when their costs skyrocket at a moment’s notice. After all, we can’t vote, and there is no one to protest on our behalf.
Just consider some of the costs which international students are expected to pay. Our university fees currently stand at over £19,000 per year. Unlike domestic students, who can return to their homes relatively cheaply during vacations, we must pay for either expensive return international flights, or find another £3,000 to pay for year round accommodation. Even before arriving, we must pay £500 for a visa and are not eligible for any kind of student loans or finance beyond private bank loans. It also should not be forgotten that our fees must be paid up-front in cash.
Regardless of our parents’ income, or whether their financial circumstances change, we are legally barred from any college safety net or access to any bursaries or hardship funds. At best, we can access a short term loan.
Most comically of all, we are barred from a vacation residence grant despite the fact that we are obviously the group who would find such support most useful. Even after contributing so much to the University’s coffers, a recent change in visa restrictions means that if we fail to find a job within four months of graduating, we will be unceremoniously kicked out of the country.
There is a frighteningly arbitrary distinction between international students who come from the EU, who are afforded student finance and domestic student fees, and those outside of the EU who are not. It makes little sense to me why students from France or Finland are eligible for considerable support, while students from Australia or Argentina are not.
I must stress that I write chiefly from my own experience. Policies towards international students differ from college to college. Mine has no international rep but I know many do.
I do not wish to unnecessarily exaggerate the difficulties faced by international students. On the whole, I have found British people friendly, welcoming and non-discriminatory. I have made the best friends of my life here, as have most of the foreign students I know, although I am perhaps lucky in coming from a culture which shares many broad similarities with that of Britain. This isn’t an advantage everyone shares.
Our anger is directed more towards the government than the university, whose attitude towards international students is one of suspicion and mistrust. Despite the sums of money we pay and the cachet we provide, we are still the most unwelcome and unwanted of guests in this country.
As a term, ‘international’ is completely uninformative. Used to label people according to their origins, this catch-all phrase obliterates any differences between them and creates a largely arbitrary group.
Students from English-speaking countries tend to have a different experience at Oxford to other “internationals”, and EU citizens have many legal privileges over non-EU students. Moreover, people choose to study abroad for an endless variety of reasons. Yet international students are treated as a group with homogenous needs and interests, rather than what they really are: a useful bureaucratic category.
Ultimately, the only things they have in common are their fee status and their visa requirements. Lumping them together as a single group might make things simpler, but it then obscures the very different issues faced by students from the four corners of the world as issues experienced by this sector of the student body.
That’s not to say that international students don’t face certain shared challenges; living far from home can be stressful at times, as is the inevitable culture shock. Furthermore, international travel is often frustrating and the student visa system is a mess – a direct result of government policy failure.
On the other hand, calling international students victims of government prejudice unnecessarily inflames a complex and nuanced situation. For example, at the UK border, international students do not face exceptional prejudice other than the usual unpleasantness of travel. UK border security is in no way extreme. Travellers are questioned, queried and recorded there – not because they are assumed to be untrustworthy but because they are taking part in a system designed to catalogue human movements. No one should take it to heart.
Even the emotive matter of fees boils down to an economic imperative: international students pay higher fees because domestic fees are subsidised. Naturally this is irritating, but fee status does not seriously affect one’s ability to take part in university life. It does not alter the conditions under which a student stands for a JCR position, joins a society, plays a sport, competes for prizes or receives college accommodation. Admittedly, homesickness is a natural part of being an international student, as is struggling to acclimatise to a potentially alien culture, but there’s peer support and various other help services in place for if these things become unmanageable. But it is vital is that these resources deal with the problems of international students as individuals.
Many JCRs and MCRs have specific officers who represent international students, so they are actually fairly well looked after at the common room level.
The decision to study abroad comes the acceptance that there will be a lot of distance between oneself and their home. Studying at Oxford is a tremendous opportunity but one which comes with downsides. Some are as old as time, and others are eminently modern, but either way it’s unfair to lay the blame for this at the University’s door.