Migrant students raised in the UK are missing out on uni due to the student loan system

‘My life, for as long as I have known it, has been me living in a state of uncertainty’

Many migrant students who have been brought up in the UK are missing out on university education because they are ineligible for student loans.

Limited Leave to Remain is a temporary immigration status introduced in 2012 allowing holders to stay in the UK until their visa expires. After ten years with LLR status, migrants can then apply Indefinite Leave to remain (ILR) and are able to stay in the UK permanently. Under the LLR rules, students are only eligible for student finance if they have spent half their life in the UK and have had LLR status for at least three years.

This has meant that high-achieving migrant students from countries like Jamaica, Pakistan, Nigeria and India, have been prevented from going into higher education, as they are unable to fund their studies without a student loan. In some cases, students who have been raised in the UK are also classed as international students and are therefore required to pay higher fees.

The testimonies of three students, published in the Deintegration Generation report by migrant youth-led organisation We Belong, show the true scale of this problem:

Zara, 19, was faced with so much uncertainty surrounding her LLR status that her mental health deteriorated

Zara came to the UK from Nigeria when she was 12 years old. She got good A-Levels and was excited to go to uni with her mates, submitting her LLR application before her exams in 2018. “I was looking forward to going to uni,” she says. “I didn’t really understand at that time what LLR was and how it affects the fees you had to pay for uni. All I knew was, I was sending off my papers to the Home Office; I’ll get it back.

“I thought it would be so easy. I was thinking, I’m going to uni with all my friends. It’s all going to be rosy. It’s going to be fine.”

Zara had a place at Warwick University ready and waiting for her, but the summer before she was meant to go to uni was filled with anxiety as Zara didn’t know if her LLR application had gone through.

September came around fast. Zara’s mates went off to uni leaving her facing the stark fact that she’d have to make other plans.

“I was thinking, I’m probably going to stay at home this year and hopefully go next year. I was looking at my options, what other things I could do if I wasn’t going to uni that year,” she says.

By October. Zara still hadn’t heard back. “Everyone had gone off. I didn’t know what to do,” she says. “I was staying at home for weeks on end. I couldn’t get a job. I couldn’t do anything. That’s when your emotional and mental state starts to decline.

“I’m thinking, what am I going to do with my life now? I’ve got my grades. I was so proud of what I got then, as well. It’s [a case of] so what do I do?”

Zara’s LLR application was denied in 2019. “I think that was my lowest point,” she says. Anxiety attacks set in, so Zara started to get counselling and was later put on antidepressants. “I was feeling panicky about everything. Emotionally, I was a wreck. I just felt like I couldn’t do anything,” Zara says.

She appealed the decision to not grant her LLR, now fully accepting she wouldn’t qualify for a student loan. But she didn’t let go of her university aspirations, and successfully applied to Lancaster Uni. “I had a scholarship of about £4,000 based on income, grades and stuff. So I thought if I could access that scholarship, my parents only really had to pay the rest of the £5,000 and I could go. I thought I could do anything now,” she says.

Zara moved to Lancaster and but returned home when she realised she’d have to pay international student fees. This was when she contacted former We Belong CEO Dami Makinde. “Dami advised me to come back home rather than have whatever amount of debt they were going to put on me. I knew my parents couldn’t afford that. I had to come back home from there. I think I just sank back into that dark pit that I was in a couple of months ago.”

Zara started waitressing and is now on an apprenticeship. Zara says: “I think the experience that I’m gaining from this could take me places that the other job couldn’t do.”

Michelle, 26, had her LLR status rejected because she applied three weeks before she was eligible

When Michelle arrived in the UK, she was just 11 years of age. After growing up in the UK, she applied for LLR status with the hope of going to uni. Her application took a year to be processed and was made with the help of a lawyer who was a friend of the family, but crucially, not an immigration specialist.

She checked her application status every day, eventually seeing that it had been dispatched. Michelle’s lawyer went into the office to see the results. “There’s no way they’re going to reject me. I met the rules; I know it,” Michelle says.

The lawyer came over to Michelle’s house and told her she had been rejected because she had applied for it three weeks before she had been in the country for half her life.

“What am I going to do?” Michelle says. “I thought my life was over. I was so depressed I cried for a whole day. I read the letter so many times and was like: but why? I was thinking about the money that I lost. Do you think that money was easy to get?”

Michelle then found an immigration lawyer whose initial consultation was free. He told her if she applied now she would definitely get LLR status. His fee was £6,000 so she bypassed him and did it herself, paying for the Home Office’s premium service.

“I said to myself, it’s very risky, but I think I’m going to do it. So I did it: I did the application and did everything myself,” she says. “I was shaking in the waiting room. I thought, what if this doesn’t come out now? Are they going to arrest me right here? Am I going back to Nigeria today?”

“Luckily, it came out fine and I literally just started crying in the middle of the office. The lady started looking at me like she didn’t understand.”

Michelle has since gone onto study psychology at a Russell Group university.

Mariam, 24, saw her requests for LLR status rejected repeatedly, preventing her from working or going to uni in the UK

When Mariam’s grandmother passed away, she left Nigeria and went to live with her mother and brother in East London. Mariam’s interest in medicine was born in the care she provided for her grandmother as her health deteriorated. From that point on, Mariam was determined to be a doctor.

Mariam settled into UK life, doing well at GCSEs and A-Levels, developing a keen interest in science. Unfortunately for Mariam, it took her five years of repeat applications to the Home Office to get LLR status. This meant that when she left secondary school, she was barred from legally working or studying in the UK.

Mariam started volunteering at We Belong until her LLR status was eventually granted in 2020. She applied for medical school and was offered a place at Plymouth University.

Mariam thought she would be eligible for student finance but this was not the case, as Student Finance England considered her an international student. Not only did this mean that she couldn’t take out a loan, it also meant she had to pay international fees, which would rise to £40,000 in the final three years of her six year degree.

With living costs on top of this, Mariam had to take several jobs and rely on crowdfunding to get to university. Plymouth Medical School said she could pay home fees for her first year, which was a massive relief to Mariam. But she still has to work every hour she can and keep up with the crowdfunding, not knowing if she’ll be able to pay for the entirety of her tuition.

“My life, for as long as I have known it, has been me living in a state of uncertainty,” she says. “Now that I have more to lose, I have no choice but to continue living it.”

Student Loans Company statement

A spokesperson for SLC told The Guardian: “SLC does not set the eligibility criteria for student finance. We process applications in line with the requirements set out by government in legislation. For residency cases the regulatory requirements are complex and while we strive to process every application correctly, we acknowledge that in a small number of cases mistakes do happen.

“In such instances we apologise and seek to resolve matters as quickly as we can in line with the regulatory requirements.

“In the last year we have invested significantly in improving the support we provide to customers for whom the application process is most challenging, and are working with We Belong to improve the information provided online and at our call centres, to ensure we provide the right support to applicants.”

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