Stranded in the UK or forced to take classes at 5am, international students are suffering

‘It really feels like we’ve been neglected’


Matilde was due to return to her home in Italy on the 22nd December. She had tickets booked, plans made and was excited to go home to her parents, who are like her best friends. Then, at the beginning of December, the Italian government announced that those arriving in Italy for Christmas should do so before the 21st or face a mandatory quarantine, lasting two weeks. Matilde booked the last ticket available back to Florence, for the night of the 20th December. On the day she was set to fly out she woke up to see news of the new variant. Nervous, Matilde turned up at Heathrow five hours before her flight to see if she was still allowed to leave the UK. It was all running smoothly until 7pm. After waiting four hours at her gate, the Italian government put a travel ban on those coming in from England. Christmas was well and truly cancelled.

“I was at the gate with like 80 people who were supposed to go home for Christmas and the government abandoned us at the very last minute,” Matilde told The Tab. “We all had to get tested before the flight so we were all tested negative, why couldn’t they let us go? All flights until 4/5pm left but not our flight just because it was one hour after the agreement.”

Matilde tried unsuccessfully to get a flight the next day and even slept at a hotel in Heathrow, but it became clear it was impossible. She returned to her university accommodation where only one housemate remained, another international student, and accepted she would be spending Christmas in the UK. What did not expect was to be trapped here for the forseeable future, with no other uni students allowed on campus.

Matilde in London, where she lives for university

“I was hoping that in January people could come back but most of them will not come back here,” she said. “I just feel sorry for my parents because I have a very good relationship with them and I can tell they miss me! But hopefully I’ll be able to visit them in Italy as soon as all of this is over.”

The one saving grace, besides daily walks around Southbank, is her flatmate Eunmin. Another international student – both are studying at King’s College London – who decided not to return to her home in Korea over the holidays because of the strict self-isolation she would have to endure. Eunmin said: “It’s definitely not been ideal, both Matilde and I are missing our friends and families so much. We may not even see a lot of our friends for semester two or after that either, but at least we’ve been quite lucky to have each other.”

Sadly, not every stranded international student has an equally stranded housemate. Kalli, who is from Canada and studies at Oxford, is spending at least the next few weeks “completely alone”, she says with a nervous laugh.

After deciding to spend Christmas in the UK and catching Covid on Boxing Day, Kalli was met with the unwelcome news that Canada would be enforcing a travel ban on England. Despite the Covid diagnosis, she says really the hardest side affects have been emotional. “It’s been hard emotionally, for sure. A pandemic makes you feel isolated in general, but it’s so easy to shut down and purposefully shut yourself off.”

Some of this strife is very specific to international students, and Kalli wishes people would see that. “People forget that as an international student, your support systems are all based around uni and friends at uni. I don’t have that, and I don’t have anywhere else to go. I feel like we’ve been neglected. Unless you’ve been an international student you don’t realise all the extra things you go through.” In the first lockdown when all students were sent home, Kalli purchased a last-minute ticket back to Canada to escape the UK. This ticket cost upwards of £1,000.

On top of that, Kalli feels that international students have been “taken advantage of”, especially when you consider that they’re paying considerably higher fees than domestic students. Kalli’s fees for one year of uni are around £20,000. Now, with everything that has happened this year, she’s looking into suspending her studies. But even that incurs hidden problems and costs as an international student, like losing her Visa while she’s still trapped in the UK.

This is the reality for the students who ended up trapped in England. Elsewhere, the reality isn’t much better. International students who made it home might be comfortable with their families instead of alone at uni, but they’re facing another hurdle entirely. The time difference.

“My worst class is a foreign language grammar class at 1am to 3am,” Andi, a first-year at UCL, told The Tab. “The revision sessions are also super early so I have to choose between sleep or revision. I also have classes at 5am, so my concentration isn’t the best. I literally set alarms five minutes before, don’t get out of bed, do class and then go straight to sleep again. I absorb very little, especially in my language classes which are two hours long.

“It’s really just a struggle to get everything done and make sure assignment deadlines are correct with the time difference – and I miss out on extra sessions because they’re not meant for international people.”

And students are missing out on more than just revision sessions. Alex, who also studies at UCL, says he’s completely lost his university experience due to being an international student in the pandemic. “I don’t have much of a time difference (four hours), which means that most of the lecture content is fairly accessible and isn’t an inconvenience for the most part, but what I’ve dealt with a lot recently is keeping up with university life and societies. I am a part of multiple societies and often their events are taking place at very late times which becomes a struggle for me and makes me wonder if I even want to put the effort into all this anymore.

“What I keep thinking more about is the way this system has been not tailored enough for all international students, as they not only cannot participate in synchronous sessions but also cannot get into student life and culture.”

This sentiment was echoed by Kalli, who said that the government and universities should have factored international students into their plans by now. “It’s been a year,” she told The Tab, “these events aren’t unprecedented anymore.”

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