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Looking after international students during the Covid-19 crisis – and after

  • 9 April 2020
  • By Anne Marie Graham

This blog has been kindly contributed by Anne Marie Graham, the Chief Executive of UKCISA (the UK Council for International Student Affairs).

In the turmoil of the Coronavirus crisis, student wellbeing remains of primary importance to UK institutions. The welfare of international students presents some specific challenges, many of which are exacerbated by a complex policy context.

In the last few weeks, voices across the sector have already noted the academic and financial contributions international students make to the higher education sector. The future health of our education sector depends on us being able to recruit international students after this crisis, and the experience we provide now to current students, when they need us most, will be critical to the success of any institution’s recruitment strategy.

Government officials are working hard to keep up with developments, and to respond to lobbying from UKCISA and others across the sector. Updates emerge almost daily from the Department for Education, the Home Office and Visas and Immigration (UKVI), as the situation evolves rapidly.

But for those advising students directly, there is still so much ambiguity to interpret. For example, current guidance indicates students should stay where they are and not travel, but this is not a clear-cut decision for many international students. Many of them will remain here to study remotely or, for Medical students, to carry out important work in the NHS. Some may have a flight booked home and are keen to travel while they can, but are scared to travel to the airport in case they are stopped and turned back. Others cannot return because their home country is closed to incoming flights or because the high cost of available flights is beyond their means. Further clarity on whether the journey home counts as ‘essential’ travel would be welcome.

Staff in UK institutions are doing their utmost to support international students in trying circumstances. While many of those who work in student services or IT support have moved to working from home, other staff are still working in university accommodation and food services to look after remaining students. This week sees the launch of the #WeAreTogether campaign to share emerging stories of mutual support across the higher education community. International students can of course access (and pay towards) our under pressure NHS, but being unwell away from home and family is a frightening experience – indeed, one that we are all preparing ourselves for. So empathy with students far away from home, whose dream of studying, living and engaging with everyday life in the UK is now under threat, is more important than ever.

International students have also suffered significant stress related to their visa status. The Home Office recently released guidance to reassure students who cannot leave the UK before their visa expires as a result of Coronavirus travel restrictions that they will not be classed as overstayers. But this guidance does not tackle the wider hostile environment put in place by a former Home Secretary, Theresa May, and regrettably it did not filter through in time to prevent some evictions by private landlords, who saw an expired visa and acted according to the rules they have adhered to for many years.

UKCISA continues to work with the Home Office and UKVI to obtain further guidance for Tier 4 sponsors and international students in the coming weeks, to clarify outstanding queries or new issues that are emerging.

  • In the short term, it’s crucial that any extra time that a student needs to complete their course due to this pandemic should not count towards the overall study cap calculation.
  • Another significant concession would be to waive any academic progression requirement for those international students already in the UK and affected by the Coronavirus, allowing Tier 4 students to submit leave to remain applications in the UK, because they cannot return home to submit leave in line with the current rules.

We are experiencing an unparalleled emergency, which is putting the Government under pressure to respond with rapid policy solutions. But the primary reason that it is so difficult to issue quickly clear guidance for the manifold and complicated situations that international students and their sponsors face, is that the student immigration system has become increasingly and unnecessarily complex.

  • Once this crisis is over, the Home Office must pick up the pace on a more streamlined and transparent immigration system for all international students, including those from the EU, to enable us to continue to recruit ambitious and talented global citizens to contribute to our education sector, and our society.

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