Universities and schools were hoping to welcome international students onto campuses for the Spring term, but have had to stop face-to-face teaching for the vast majority because of lockdown measures.
“Our advice for international students… is to consider whether they in fact need to travel to the UK at this time”
Now the government is advising international students not to travel from overseas unless their course requires them to be on campus from January 4 or if they can’t rearrange their travel plans.
However, stakeholders have told The PIE News that many students at both universities and schools have already come to the UK and are now unable to return home because of travel restrictions.
There are concerns for the mental health of these students facing the UK lockdown, far away from their families.
“Our HE providers are looking forward to welcoming both returning and new international students planning to study at UK providers this year,” the DfE said in a statement.
“Students are able to study online until in-person learning resumes. Our advice for international students travelling from overseas for the Spring term is to consider whether they in fact need to travel to the UK at this time.”
The DfE said providers should try to be as flexible as possible with international students travelling to the UK from overseas.
“This is especially the case if students have already booked travel before this guidance was issued and they are unable to rearrange via their travel operator, or the cost of rearranging would be prohibitively high,” they said.
The Department acknowledged that “many international students” may have remained in their term-time accommodation over the winter break, or have already returned, but who are not expected to return to in-person learning until mid-February.
“These students should remain at their current university accommodation. They should be asked to only utilise campus resources when they have to, in order to reduce footfall on campus, but they should be offered testing alongside the first expected returners,” the DfE said.
“Issues faced are mostly around availability of flights and the availability of travel”
“In terms of travel to the UK, the issues faced are mostly around availability of flights and the availability of travel,” Stephanie Harris the lead on International Engagement (Non-EU) at Universities UK International told The PIE.
“In terms of leaving the UK and travelling home, the issues there are again the same in terms of availability of flights, as well as the fact that some countries have imposed stricter border controls on individuals travelling from the UK over the Christmas period,” she said.
India is one such country that has imposed stricter travel controls on people flying from the UK.
Flights were closed between the two countries in the last week of December amid concerns over the new Covid-19 strain that had appeared in the UK. Now flights have resumed – but on a very limited basis.
“We’ve had a lot of queries already, where someone’s mother or father was critically ill in India”
Chairperson of NISAU, Sanam Arora, explained that there have been “tragic” consequences of students not being able to get back to their families.
“We’ve had a lot of queries already, where someone’s mother or father was critically ill in India and they wanted to go back or they were already scheduled to go back and suddenly couldn’t because of the immediate travel ban,” she said.
“Then they are trapped here and over the next few days, the parent’s condition progressively worsens and ultimately sadly passes away. The students are trapped here and unable to go back.”
International students at younger levels who have flown to the UK are also facing problems, according to Caroline Nixon, director of Caroline Nixon Education.
“The fact that the announcement came on Monday night, which for many boarding schools was the first day back, was incredibly problematic timing wise,” she said.
“A lot of students arrived at school on Monday and then Monday night was told that schools were closing,” she said.
However, Nixon explained that significant numbers of students who stayed at school through the Christmas holidays remained as the believed doing so would mean avoiding quarantine periods at home, and in the UK on their return.
“They thought, ‘We’ll be good and sacrifice our Christmas holiday and we’ll stay in the UK so that we can go back to school’. Of course, for those students, it’s all been for nothing,” she added.
“The mental health of the children in their care is absolutely at the forefront of their mind”
Educators are now taking measures to ensure students unable to return home are properly looked after and kept up to date with relevant information.
“For boarding house staff the mental health of the children in their care is absolutely at the forefront of their mind and people are doing the absolute best support these kids,” said Nixon, of the pre-university students.
UUKi’s Harris added that the organisation’s main message is “to encourage students to reach out to their universities if they are facing any issues around hardship and to have that discussion with them so that universities can support them through it”.
NISAU, are publishing advisories for Indian students to provide regular updates and providing support to Indians stuck in the UK.