Thousands of Indian students unable to leave the UK because of the coronavirus lockdown are relying on food donations from charities because they can no longer afford to eat.
Student groups representing the students, from across the UK, have been coordinating emergency food drops with local community groups and charities. Many of the young people have lost their part-time jobs and can no longer afford even basic living costs.
The Indian National Students’ Association, one of the largest student groups, says so far it has helped to distribute food to more than 3,000 struggling students across the country. A second UK-wide students’ group, the National Indian Students and Alumni Union, says it has also had calls from hundreds of students who cannot afford food.
Charan Sekhon, chair of an Anglo-Indian charity based in Bedford called the Seva Trust, which has delivered food parcels to more than 60 Indian students in its local area, says: “We have had lots of examples where students are actually starving. They haven’t got anything at all to eat.”
Virendra Sharma, Labour MP for Ealing Southall, wrote to the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, on Wednesday calling for universities to ringfence money from hardship funds, which are often discretionary, for international students. He also called for minimum service standards for universities to ensure they are offering students enough advice and support.
He wrote: “I have heard stories of international students contemplating suicide because they do not know what to do and cannot afford to eat.”
India banned all international flights from 22 March, giving students only two days to arrange to get home. Flights that typically cost around £300 were selling for £2,000, and thousands of students found themselves stranded in Britain.
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India is the fastest growing market for British universities, with nearly 27,000 Indian students coming to the UK in 2018-19. International students can pay up to £38,000 a year in tuition fees to study for an undergraduate degree at a UK university. Indian student groups and charities say many Indian students are not from wealthy families, and have to rely on part-time jobs to cover their living expenses.
Sekhon says his small charity, which usually focuses on education projects, has been flooded with queries from students since being listed by the Indian high commission as a coronavirus support group. It has been delivering free hot meals and food to Indian students in Milton Keynes, Bedford and Luton for the past four weeks. He says the students are mainly from the universities of Cranfield, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire.
“I don’t think universities fully understand what is going on,” he says. “Many of these students have been doing cash-in-hand or hourly-paid jobs, which they have lost. They can’t get home to their families, and they feel alone and don’t know how to access help like food banks.”
A spokesperson for the University of Bedfordshire says: “Students don’t always highlight their difficulties and don’t contact our support team. We would urge students who are struggling to get in contact straight away.” The university can provide care packages and financial support as well as help finding work, she says.
Cranfield University says it is aware of only one case of hardship. “Our student support and wellbeing team is looking into the details and will offer help,” it says.
The University of Hertfordshire says is it offering wellbeing support, care packages, accommodation and food vouchers and has set up a new fund to help students in hardship as a result of the pandemic.
Sameer Dhore, a student at the University of Greenwich and president of the university’s Indian Society, says: “Students are crying on the phone saying they want to see their mum or dad. The major issue is finance. Students are running out of money right now. There are students with nothing to live on.”
The National Indian Students and Alumni Union says it has received thousands of queries from anxious students “trapped” across the UK, hundreds of whom say they do not have enough to eat.
Sanam Arora, NISAU’s chairwoman, says: “A lot of students rely on part-time jobs, and now they have lost them they can’t pay their rent or buy food.” She says there is an atmosphere of panic: “The mental health issues are just flabbergasting. Some students have even threatened suicide.”
The organisation has called on the Indian government to help get students home, and is backing a call by the UK’s National Union of Students for the UK government to do more to help. “International students are falling through the safety net,” she warns.
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Meanwhile, the Indian National Students’ Association said it had helped to distribute more than 3,600 rescue packages of groceries and ready meals to students so far. Of these, 90% were in England, although it has also supported students in Wales, Scotland and Belfast. Indian grocery stores and restaurants have been contacting the association offering spare food, and helping to get this to students in need.
Prerit Souda, an INSA committee member, says that as well as being unable to buy food, some students have been facing eviction because they cannot pay their rent. “We connect them with legal experts, but in some scenarios students have been sub-contracting and that is much more difficult as they don’t have the same rights. In those cases we have been working with Indian community organisations to find them somewhere free to stay.”
The Indian government has said the flights ban will continue until midnight on Sunday. Student groups, charities and parents are calling for students to be put to the front of the queue for repatriation.
Universities UK, the vice-chancellors’ group, says all universities now have support systems in place. Vivienne Stern, UUK’s international director, says: “The first piece of advice we would give students is please, please contact your university. If they don’t know, they can’t help you. They might not be able to fix everything, but there are people on hand who want to help and listen to your problems.”
Stern says some universities are going the extra mile to reach out to students, rather than waiting for students to come to them. These include Exeter University, which has been calling all remaining international students daily. Meanwhile, Bath University has moved students who were in halls in the city centre into rooms on its campus, and is providing three free meals a day.
Meanwhile, parents and relatives back in India have been using social media to beg the Indian government to bring their children home.
They include Dipti Taluja, whose 18-year-old son is doing a degree in sound engineering and music production at a private higher education institution in London. “It is very scary sitting thousands of miles away and knowing you are helpless and cannot do anything to bring back your child,” she says from her home in Gurugram, near New Delhi. Her son has been “very depressed”, she says, but is coping better after speaking to volunteers at NISAU.
The UK Council for International Student Affairs has an advice page to help students.
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