The Certainty of Uncertainty
Updated: Mar 30, 2020
According to government sources referent to 2017/2018, the United Kingdom has a university student population of around 2.3 million, of which around 450,000 are international students. While the precise figures are unclear, of those 450,000 students, a substantial amount are working part-time in order to make ends meet, using their hard-earned income to pay bills, and in some cases, getting limited financial support from home if not completely non-existent. Quite clearly, these students are heavily reliant on the existent of these part-time jobs in order to survive.
The United Kingdom has long been an attractive destination for foreign students for various reasons. While some cases differ due to the different type of deal some get due to their nationality, when it regards students coming from European Union countries, the access to student loans, a reputable education and a strong economy with various job opportunities (course-related or not). One of these reasons, if not a combination of these, tends to be what drives so many foreigners to the system of Higher Education in the UK.
Obviously, and regardless of nationality, working part-time while studying full time is not an easy task, but this was a process that ran somewhat smoothly for international students up until very recently. Universities were packed and receiving increased amounts of funding, local businesses had access to a wider pool of available low paid workers, and the students themselves benefited hugely from the experience of living in a foreign country, learning new languages, and adding work experience to their Curriculum Vitae, not to mention the plethora of opportunities that came with this as it regards to things like networking and further building their academic and professional futures (be it in the UK or anywhere else).
With the recent outbreak of COVID-19, which has been covered in different ways by writers in this website (myself included), all of society has been affected to some extent, and the international students are not an exception, to say the least. As classes have either been suspended or moved to an online model, and their physical presence is no longer required at the universities, plus the businesses that allow them to pay their bills are shutting down, the most tempting scenario for any international student would be to return home, a scenario which brings various risks: the possibility of carrying the infection back home, with the risk of being infected during the trip an unfortunate possibility, or the other scary prospect that one may not be able to return to the United Kingdom in September to finish their studies, as it is at the moment impossible to predict how this pandemic will play out. What if it is literally impossible to return and finish the course that you have invested so much of your time, money and passion in?
The other option is to stay and hope for the best. Obviously, this is also a very risky decision due to the same factors. As it is complicated to predict how this pandemic will play out, it is complicated to know you will be able to pay your bills in a month or two. And while the UK government has taken some steps to ensure that at this time someone can’t get evicted, a lack of income is still a major problem for anyone, especially during a lockdown. Furthermore, the situation of students who work under zero hours contracts, regardless of government action thus far, are in a particularly precarious situation.
In conclusion, it is safe to say this international student dilemma is, for now, far from its end. The consequences, however, will be far greater. The factors that held together the sustainability of the international students have now been put in question, and this is something that may or may not be detrimental for Higher Education in the UK, depending on how this situation plays out. As with everything at this point, only time will tell.