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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Modern Languages students slam Year Abroad Office failings

Izzy Tod reports.

Modern Languages students on their year abroad report feeling let down and abandoned by Oxford University’s Year Abroad Office. Students told Cherwell that the Year Abroad Office provided minimal mental health support, a lack of meaningful assistance for students from working-class backgrounds, and has repeatedly disseminated false information and guidance. In one case, University failings led to students being scammed when applying for health insurance cards.

The Year Abroad Office is part of the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages. It is the central body that coordinates year abroad arrangements for Modern Languages students going abroad in their second or third year. With different colleges providing varying levels of support to their students, many rely on the Year Abroad Office when moving abroad to work, study or teach. 

However, student testimonies heard by Cherwell have claimed that the Year Abroad Office is failing to provide adequate support to all of its students.

Third-year students currently on their year abroad feel that they were “unequipped” to travel abroad and “ill-informed” about the process. With the cancellation of the Year Abroad Health and Safety session in Trinity 2021, many students had attended only a singular hour-long presentation before embarking on their years abroad. One third-year student studying German commented that: “to send students out to their target countries with woefully inadequate levels of advice about […] the pathways available, and plainly amateur, even arrogant administration […] is simply unfair.” 

The student claimed that they were advised to “use their connections” to get a job abroad, a recommendation that they called “the clearest example of classism (inadvertent or not), that [they] have experienced in [their] time at Oxford”.  Another student felt that the Year Abroad Office “alienated working-class students” by failing to provide meaningful assistance to those looking for jobs abroad.

Once abroad, students reported a “lack of communication”, “lack of empathy” and inadequate “year-round support” from the Year Abroad Office, with several students expressing concern over the mental-health implications of such treatment. One third-year student studying French stated: “I have had no communication from anyone at uni checking that I am even on my year abroad and asking me if I am ok and alive. I think this is very poor from a welfare standpoint as I know that the university doesn’t even know where I am…I have felt completely abandoned by the university for the duration of my time abroad.” 

Where the Year Abroad Office has attempted to provide some assistance, students feel that their advice is at best unhelpful, and at worst, actively harmful. In Michaelmas 2021, for example, the Year Abroad Office provided students with a link to a scam website that charged £35 to order a fake GHIC insurance card (the post-Brexit replacement of the EHIC card). A third-year student studying French, who applied through this link, said: 

“I originally applied for the card through the link sent by the university and paid the £35 fee without thinking. Must be the right link if it’s recommended by the year abroad office, right? A few weeks later, I was told by another student that the GHIC should be free through the official website! Although uni did then refund this error, my application was then ‘lost’ by the official GHIC handlers […], 10 weeks later I got my card and could finally get the visa.” 

The Year Abroad Office triggered further administrative complications for students studying French planning to take up internships abroad. In August 2021, students who filled in the “Convention de Stage” form drawn up by the faculty found their applications to take up internships rejected by the French authorities because the form did not comply with the necessary French law.

These mistakes, according to the students affected, are symptomatic of the Year Abroad Office’s “failure to adapt to Brexit”, with students claiming that the University is still “unprepared for all of the corresponding bureaucracy” that is involved in post-Brexit year abroad arrangements. 

The Year Abroad Office is likely to face further challenges in the coming months, as the Russian invasion of Ukraine has created uncertainty for current first and second-year students studying Russian. Having flown home all of the current Year Abroad students in Russia, the Year Abroad Office must now decide on alternative arrangements for the upcoming cohorts.    

When approached by Cherwell, a representative from the YA provided a full statement: “To the best of our knowledge, that is not true. Students were only ever sent the links to the FCDO website, and we additionally obtained advice directly from the British Council. Guidance​ for each of the 27 different EU countries has changed, as has FCDO advice on Covid-related travel – but that does not mean the advice was incorrect. There was an administrative error where an incorrect link was sent. The website was not a scam, although charged a fee for faster processing of a free application. The link was corrected as soon as it came to light, and the students affected were reimbursed for the fee.” 

“That the Year Abroad Office provided a substandard template for the ‘Convention de Stage’ form that did not meet the necessary requirements of French law. A temporary template was made available to students almost immediately after the departure from the EU. However during the year, it came to light that there was additional wording required to meet the new legalities/Visa requirements for internships in France. 

“As set out before: the UK did not decide until the last moment on what basis it would conduct its relationship with the EU after 31 January 2020. The YA office was prepared and had repeatedly flagged to students that work travel would be affected, and that every EU country would make its own decisions on immigration because of the decisions the UK government had taken – so that the result of Brexit was to replace one set of immigration regulations with 27 different ones.”

“The MML Year Abroad offers flexibility to undertake a range of options and the Faculty endeavours to provide a range of information for all options. Student feedback has always been that students value the flexibility of YA arrangements, where individual students – in consultation with their tutors – can make arrangements which meet their academic needs and their career aspirations. All students receive a language-specific YA meeting, as well as a faculty-based session in Trinity Term and repeated emails, have access to a host of resources on work-placement and internships, but are advised that it is the responsibility of individual students to find work.  Students have access to a range of funding opportunities for the year abroad including: The continuation of their full means-tested Government maintenance support and Oxford Bursary or Crankstart Scholarships if eligible, Turing funding opportunities, Heath Harrison Scholarships, Year Abroad Travel Hardship Fund as well as College funding.”

“The YA provides a session in TT on how to cope with the YA and the challenges that it may pose (now called “YA orientation’ rather than ‘Myths and realities’), together with a set of resources on mental health and well-being. Students are advised to discuss mental health needs with their college and the faculty’s disability advisor. The YA officers have gone out of their way to support students who have found themselves in mental health difficulties.”

A University spokesperson told Cherwell: “The Year Abroad Office provides comprehensive support and information for all Modern Languages students, of whom there are around 300 annually, ahead of their year abroad and during it. This includes a session in the term before departure on coping with the year abroad and any challenges that may arise, resources on mental health and well-being, and faculty and college support throughout the year. All students receive advice and resources about work placements and internships for the year abroad, allowing students, in consultation with tutors, to find placements which meet their academic needs and career aspirations. Students also have access to a range of funding opportunities for the year abroad including continuation of University bursaries and scholarships,  Year Abroad Travel Hardship Fund, College funding and Turing funding, which offers higher levels of support for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Information is regularly updated in line with official guidance, and communication to students has increased in recent years following Brexit and the international challenges of the pandemic and the war in the Ukraine.”

Image Credit: Mr Eugene Birchall / CC BY-SA 2.0 via Geograph

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