International student’s family forced to sell heirlooms to fund son’s £20k a year tuition fees

To Mateo, it feels like the uni is saying, ‘Give me your 20k and I’ll give you a couple of powerpoint presentations’

Mateo Bartra was so excited to begin his studies at the University of Leeds, thousands of miles from his home in Lima, Peru. His sister had gone before him and now it was his turn to fly the nest. Together, they represented the first generation in their family to go to university. For Mateo, it didn’t turn out as expected.

The coronavirus pandemic closed campuses and shifted teaching online. The quality of education was dramatically reduced, and international students like Mateo found themselves taking the brunt of the financial burden.

Back home in Lima, Mateo’s Dad’s television transmitter business began to hit hard times. Mateo’s Mum, who works as a TV host,  started doing freelance work recording voice-overs for Ebooks. The family even had to start selling their personal belongings to fund Mateo’s education.  Mateo said: “I feel like, is it really worth it? Is it really worth it for my parents to spend their savings and everything on me if the university I applied to, and told them will be great, is not really providing what other universities around the globe are doing?”

‘Coming to the UK was a life-changing opportunity’

Mateo and his family were enticed by the quality of the education provided by UK universities, especially in comparison to institutions in Peru.

As an international student, Mateo isn’t eligible for a student loan meaning that his family have to pay the £19,750 annual fee in two instalments. One at the start of the year, and one in February.

Ultimately,  Mateo’s parents felt the price tag was worth it, even though it’s £10,500 more than UK nationals pay for the same education. “It wasn’t really a choice to stay here [in Peru]. If I wanted the future I’m pursuing, staying here wasn’t an option.” Mateo told The Leeds Tab.

For Mateo, “coming to the UK was a life-changing opportunity”, and not one he was going to pass up on. Unfortunately, he would soon see the quality of his education diminish.

‘Give me your £20k and I’ll give you a couple of powerpoint presentations’

At the end of his first year, when coronavirus was taking off, Mateo rapidly became dissatisfied with his education. Mateo felt like the uni was saying, “Give me your 20k and I’ll give you a couple of powerpoint presentations.”

“For one of my modules I had to wait six months until I got my feedback.” Mateo told The Leeds Tab.

After 16 months in Leeds, Mateo went home to spend this Christmas in Peru with his family. He’s currently trying to come back to the UK, aiming for February, but unsure whether this will be possible given the travel ban.

Because he’s in Peru, five hours behind the UK, some of his seminars are as early as 4 am. When he emailed the Uni to ask if they could be moved, he was told this wouldn’t be possible and that he should just watch recorded seminars online.

To make matters worse, lectures aren’t appearing online on time and lecturers use an array of different systems to communicate with students causing confusion. Mateo said: “It’s really hard to do stuff if the university is not organised whatsoever.”

‘My parents are £50k into debt right now and they’re still trying to get money’

Mateo (right) with his parents

Mateo’s frustrations with the quality of his education have been worsened by the financial hardship endured by his family in Peru. Both his parents have lost business as a result of the pandemic and are now selling their own belongings to pay for their son’s education. Mateo said: “My Dad has been selling a lot of our stuff. He sold our bikes. He sold his car. He had a Volkswagon from 66, one of those Beetles. It was his inheritance from his Mum and he had to sell it to pay for uni.”

He adds: “My parents aren’t really saving for their pension right now, they aren’t really saving for a house, they’re just paying for my uni. That’s their whole financial focus right now. It’s really heartbreaking to see that as a son.

In the USA, universities such as Princeton and John Hopkins have slashed tuition fees by 10 per cent to mitigate the financial difficulties that have fallen on some families. Mateo thinks that UK universities should now do the same.

“I don’t expect a refund. I don’t think it’s realistic that universities are just going to give money back. But I would expect universities to lower the fees. Maybe don’t charge me that much for third year. Maybe don’t charge me that much this February.”

“My parents are 50k into debt right now and they’re still trying to get money. If they don’t have to pay that much this year. That would be so helpful. That would be such a relief for my parents.” Mateo told The Leeds Tab.

‘They haven’t said anything. They haven’t reached out’

So, what support has Mateo actually received from the University of Leeds? The answer? Not much. “They haven’t said anything. They haven’t reached out.” Mateo told The Leeds Tab.

Leeds University Union run a Coronavirus emergency hardship fund, but Mateo only stumbled on this by chance and says it’s unclear who is eligible to apply. A post on the Leeds University Union website reads: “So far we have awarded £2,775 – an average payment of £308 per applicant, most often to cover the costs of food, bills and medication for our students and their dependants.”

While this is great, it’s probably not going to solve Mateo’s problems.

After a busy exam period,  Mateo is now applying for funding. The next deadline for the payment of Mateo’s tuition fees is fast approaching in February. His parents struggled to pay last semester but now he thinks they have just about enough money to cover the next term. Mateo is immensely grateful for his parents’ monumental efforts to support him but adds: “They say it really doesn’t matter but as a son it’s really hard to accept that.”

Related stories recommended by this writer:

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

• ‘Stuck in the middle’: What it’s like to be an international student right now

• I’m an international student and I feel like we’ve been forgotten in the pandemic