International students pick up packages from Newham Community Project food bank in east London © Tolga Akmen/FT

Be the first to know about every new Coronavirus story

The evaporation of part-time jobs and other support for hundreds of thousands of international students in the UK has left many so desperate they rely on food handouts, organisations working with them have warned.

The challenges are particularly prevalent in parts of east London where the Newham Community Project, a mosque-based charity, provides food to more than 1,300 students every week. Students from relatively poor backgrounds in countries such as India and China who rely on part-time jobs to cover basic expenses, are among the worst affected.

In the 2018-19 academic year — the last for which figures are available — overseas students accounted for 20 per cent of those studying in UK higher education, with people from outside the EU paying annual fees of between £14,000 and £20,000.

While there are no official statistics on the problem, in a joint survey of 124 international students by two groups — the Migrants’ Rights Network and Unis Resist Border Controls — more than half said they were destitute or at risk of becoming destitute. There were 485,600 overseas students at UK universities in 2018-19, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, with 343,000 from non-EU countries such as China and India.

Sanaz Raji, a member of Unis Resist Border Controls, which campaigns for international students’ rights, said the issue was a “big problem”. She blamed successive UK governments for barring people living in Britain on time-limited visas from receiving public money such as social security benefits.

“It’s a horrible situation that they’re in,” Ms Raji said of the students.

Volunteers prepare food packages in east London. Many students rely on part-time jobs to cover basic expenses, often in the hard-hit hospitality sector © Tolga Akmen /FT

However, Universities UK, which represents the higher education sector, said it was committed to supporting all students, including those from outside the UK, who might be facing challenges as a result of Covid-19.

“Universities, who recognise the financial pressures the pandemic has placed on students, are providing increased financial support and ensuring continued wellbeing support as a result,” the group said.

The challenges were evident last week outside the vacant shop in Forest Gate, east London, where the Newham Community Project hands out food parcels to students, mostly from India. A steady stream of people brought shopping trolleys, bicycles and holdalls to collect supplies such as cooking oil, fruit juice and rice.

Elyas Ismail, organiser of the service, said it was helping students from about 20 institutions. For many of them, the job shortage had exacerbated problems resulting from the pandemic’s effect on their families’ ability to fund their education. “Since the pandemic, many of them haven’t got the work to repay their expenses,” Mr Ismail said.

Mohammed Zeeshan, from Kerala, in southern India, who was collecting supplies for himself and his wife, said he was paying £14,000 for a one-year masters degree in big data from the University of Greenwich that was now entirely online.

Elsewhere in the queue there was a student from BPP University, a private institution in Shepherd’s Bush, and one from the University of East London, whose students Mr Ismail said made up the biggest single group of service users.

Elyas Ismail of the Newham Community Project said it was helping students from about 20 institutions © Tolga Akmen/FT

Mr Zeeshan said the Newham project had helped him negotiate with the university for an extension to the deadline to pay his fees. “Without them, this would be really difficult — especially for students like us,” Mr Zeeshan said.

Sanam Arora, chairwoman of the National Indian Students and Alumni Union UK, acknowledged some institutions had been “exceptionally good” to overseas students.

Amanda Broderick, UEL’s vice-chancellor, said her institution had set up a hardship fund of more than £1m to help students through the pandemic.

However, Ms Arora said the response of universities in general had been a “mixed bag”. “There have been some where the behaviour has been really, really disappointing,” she said.

The new nationwide lockdown rules in England

  • The main restriction is a firm stay-at-home message

  • People are only allowed to leave their home to go to work if they cannot reasonably do so from home, to shop for essential food, medicines and other necessities and to exercise with their household or one other person — once a day and locally

  • The most clinically vulnerable will be asked to shield

  • All colleges and primary and secondary schools will be closed until a review at half-term in mid-February. Vulnerable children and children of critical workers will still be able to attend while nursery provision will remain available

  • University students will have to study from home until at least mid-February

  • Hospitality and non-essential retail will be closed. Takeaway services will be available but not for the sale of alcohol

  • Entertainment venues and animal attractions such as zoos will close. Playgrounds can remain open

  • Places of worship can also stay open but one may attend only with one’s household

  • Indoor and outdoor sports facilities, including courts, gyms, golf courses, swimming pools and riding arenas, will close. Elite sport including the English Premier League will be able to continue

  • Overseas travel will be allowed for “essential” business only 

Full details are available on the government’s official website.

Letter in response to this article:

Modi must seize opportunity to lure Indian talent back home / From Utkarsh Sharma, Somerville College, University of Oxford, Oxford, Oxfordshire, UK

Get alerts on UK universities when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article