Martin Penov discusses the unique challenges faced by international students during the pandemic with a particular focus upon those at the University of Manchester.
If there is one thing we have learnt in the past year, it is that things can change drastically and without warning. As the world finds itself in the midst of a global pandemic and Britain exits the EU, academic institutions have faced unprecedented challenges and have been forced to make controversial decisions for their own survival. Students have been at the forefront of this crisis, with thousands of young people from the UK and abroad filling campuses after a false promise of face-to-face teaching, leading to unrest among the student community, nowhere is this more clear than in Manchester. But amid all this chaos one group, international students, has faced unique challenges which cannot be ignored. Why is that?
Manchester’s Turbulent Semester
To summarise the past months in Manchester’s student community is no easy task. The city is no stranger to change, with many social movements finding their origin in its factories and university halls. And that is exactly what happened when the University of Manchester drew attention from the press due to a string of scandals, forcing the student community to act. As the UK’s biggest university decided to bring students to campus, the city quickly became the biggest COVID hotspot in the country. This combined with the university’s lack of support services led to students wondering why they were brought here and demanding answers. The situation reached a breaking point when students in the Fallowed campus woke up to find metal fences being installed around their campus without prior warning, leading to a massive protest to tear down the fences. A week later a group of students occupied the Owen’s Park tower, declaring a rent strike and demanding more accountability and a reduction in fees. The university reacted by bringing police to campus in order to stop another protest, which resulted in a case of racial profiling against a black student. More protests followed and the university finally caved, giving students a reduction in accommodation fees, and pledging to better finance students’ mental health services. This cost the university millions and encouraged students across the country to try and replicate Manchester’s success. But where was Manchester’s international community during all of this?
The Other Side of the Story
With one of the biggest international student communities in the UK, Manchester prides itself with its vibrant and diverse student environment. But despite this, all that pride amounted to little when international students were left feeling largely ignored. When COVID cases started rising, many students were forced into self-isolation, including international students whose countries were not part of the travel corridor and just got out of two weeks of isolation. This coupled with rumours of another lockdown led to many students leaving the city. But while British students could easily go back home, international students were faced with the choice of whether or not to leave the country indefinitely. The situation got even more complicated as new restrictions were put in place and EU students were left wondering if they would be able to return following Brexit, some waiting months for a response from the government’s EU Settlement Scheme. International students also did not benefit as much from the university’s concessions due to the extortionate international fees. The stress created by the ambiguity surrounding their legal status, the lack of financial support from the government and the almost non-existent support from the university’s services resulted in international students feeling ignored, and many decided to cancel their accommodation contracts and leave the UK before the end of the semester. While many activist groups were formed as a result of the protests, none were able to voice the concerns of the city’s large international community.
A Learning Experience for the Future
This crisis has revealed a fatal flaw in the UK’s academic structure. As universities are forced to rely on students for their funding, many awful decisions were made that put profit above students’ well-being. When put to the test, universities’ support services utterly failed in providing students with the mental health and financial support they so desperately needed. But while UK students had support networks in place in the form of family and civil organisations, international students were largely left to fend for themselves. What happened in Manchester is a reflection of the dire state of the country’s academic institutions. Student well-being has to always come first, and measures have to be put in place in order to support and attract the international students that make Manchester the vibrant and unique city that it is.
Martin is a Politics and International Relations student at the University of Manchester. Originally from Bulgaria, he is involved in pro-European and youth activism in the UK, and is the Treasurer of the Young European Movement.