We spoke to international students about life at Sussex during the pandemic

‘Online teaching is not worth paying £18,000 for’

As an international student, it seems I will earn my degree before having visited campus. Amongst lockdowns and closed borders, international students struggled to obtain visas and the October deadline for arriving on campus inched ever closer. After extending the deadline to January, Sussex continued to encourage students to move despite rising coronavirus cases.

On December 30 2020, Sussex Uni discouraged students from coming – but was it too late? Sussex of course has to comply with the government’s rules, but their choices also directly impact students. We spoke to some of the international students studying at Sussex who feel like they’ve missed out.

“Crazy fees and barely any support”

From the UAE, Fatima* began attending the School of Business in September and stayed off-campus in Brighton throughout the pandemic. “I came ’cause I knew I wouldn’t get any work done at home, at least when I’m here, I’m independent and in charge of my work.”

After arriving and struggling with poor mental health, she reached out to the medical clinic for support and was waitlisted for six weeks. Though she is now receiving care, she feels it was too long of a wait. Fatima is frustrated with the “crazy fees and barely any support,” and feels the online education system is not what was promised.

“I was prescribed water before bed for my anxiety by the doctor”

Lamin, a Gambian Global Studies student, moved in October. While isolating at student accommodation, he requested food support but learned only students who tested positive or contacts were eligible, which did not follow previous correspondence.

While moving in he noticed a broken window, which he immediately reported, but it hasn’t been fixed, and so has refused to pay rent. Struggling with mental health he attended online support sessions but pointed out that  “Zoom itself is part of anxiety.” At one point Lamin suffered a panic attack, so he called the campus GP who prescribed him water before bed with no follow-up care.

“Online teaching is not worth paying £18,000 for”

Moe, from Saudi Arabia, came to the School of Business as a fresher in September. He felt confident that classes would be in person, and he had three face-to-face classes before they went entirely online.

At first, Moe had a pleasant uni experience spending time with flatmates, but the transition to online school was not easy. Moe felt that the classes were too extensive and support was limited. He was unsure if Sussex were providing what was promised. “I paid for education that should’ve been in person, but online teaching is really not worth paying £18,000 for”.

Moe stayed in student accommodation, but left during the October lockdown. He told The Sussex Tab that he is participating in the rent strike: “I’m hoping for a decrease in rent because I only stayed a month in uni.” He hopes to return to campus and that classes will return in March.

A lack of additional support

Ana*, an IDS student from the United Emirates, stayed home her first semester and moved to campus in December to meet the Brexit deadline – on the same day it was announced to stay in place. Before she arrived, she was told she could not receive isolation housing support because they were on vacation and could only provide support to students already placed in university accommodations.

Upon requesting help to find short-term housing, staff pointed her to the website and gave no additional support. She is grateful to IDS because they provided support in the form of an extension for assessments and caring check-in emails from staff. Ana says “all the other Sussex staff were so kind” and she hopes that classes will be blended learning beginning in February.

The pandemic has “shed light on leadership and decision-making priorities”

Chelsea, a Canadian IDS student, stayed home where she could maintain employment and reduce her cost of living. Chelsea told The Sussex Tab she is disappointed by Sussex’s guidance: “while the pandemic has proved challenging, it has also shed light on leadership and decision-making priorities. Unfortunately, it has shown that often financial decisions come ahead of students’ desires or needs.

Following the new lockdown announcement, Chelsea joined other IDS students in collectively asking for a deadline extension, but instead were told to apply for extensions on an individual basis. This occurred a day before many assignments were due, and students like Chelsea did not feel this was enough time to get individual claims seen to.

“It’s frustrating because we’re telling them what we need and they’re completely ignoring it and providing solutions that don’t actually help the specific situation. We have been so flexible, and it’s not reciprocated.”

A University of Sussex spokesperson said: “We appreciate this year has been made difficult for students because of the unprecedented circumstances created by the global pandemic. The University has introduced many new measures to try and mitigate these difficult circumstances as much as possible by offering a wide range of additional support.

“As well as introducing more flexible types of assessment, in part to take into account time-zone differences and establishing more routes for students to submit exceptional circumstances claims as a result of the impact of the pandemic on their learning, both last year and this year – the University has introduced new policies, known as ‘no-detriment’ that work to ensure that students grades are protected due to the difficult circumstances caused by the pandemic.

“This is a fundamental way of supporting our students, so we can make sure that they can continue to progress. Whilst doing this we are putting great care into making sure that the learning outcomes are achieved and that the value of students’ degrees are maintained. The development of this policy continues and these measures are part of an ongoing process of supporting students’ education, involving extensive consultation with students and staff.

“Other steps we have taken include providing a comprehensive package of support to hundreds of students both on and off campus who need to self-isolate due to having Covid symptoms, or if they are living with someone who Covid positive, or have Covid themselves. This includes financial payments to support those isolating, as well as laundry services and meals for those students living on campus who are Covid positive.

“Our Residential Life staff and Student Connectors offer support all students living in University accommodation, from providing advice and answering enquiries to putting on virtual socials.

“We have also been putting a major emphasis into providing significant financial support for students where possible. We have waived rents for students with accommodation on campus this year for the duration of the lockdown measures and we have also doubled the number of hardship payments made to those that needed it most.

“For international students, there is a dedicated service available in the form of the International Student Support team who can provide tailored advice and support. The service is currently operating online, so international students are encouraged to reach out to [email protected] if they would like to speak to an advisor.”

Linda Waldman, Director of Teaching and Learning IDS, commented: ‘This has been an incredibly challenging time for all our students who have been unable to experience life on the campus in full. Our focus throughout has been to do as much as we can including staying in regular contact, organising socials and encouraging group (online) learning while at the same time providing direct support including signposting to emotional, health and financial resources.

It’s positive that these steps have helped many students but we’re aware that some others have felt let down that we couldn’t do more, particularly in extending assessment deadlines. This was related to University of Sussex procedure which we explained and then encouraged students to apply for a lifting of the penalty for a late submission if they were in exceptional circumstances.’

*Some students wished to remain anonymous so names have been changed.