Let’s first establish two fundamental tenets: the UK immigration system is a business, and the university system is a business. The international student in the UK is therefore caught between two intersecting systems of greed. I entered unwittingly into the fray, buying into the cultural narratives that immigration would expand my horizons and education would secure my future.
It’s clever marketing on the part of the institutions, getting to the heart of my generation’s greatest aspirations and our greatest fears. We’ve grown up more connected than any other generation in the history of the world, more aware of what’s out there in the world, and we want to see it for ourselves. And at the same time, we’re saddled with record student debt and ever-dwindling prospects for secure employment. We have the raw materials for every kind of dream, yet (unless we’re born privileged) we don’t have the raw materials to access them.
When I finished my undergraduate degree, I – like so many others who never had the financial means to complete a series of unpaid internships – was staring down some pretty bleak employment prospects. Doing a master’s in London seemed the perfect antidote. Sure, I would have to take out a student loan, but a master’s would guarantee me a decent job, right?
In reality, though, studying in the UK has bankrupted me. It’s left me rootless. Unable to secure that coveted work visa, I was forced to leave London for New York, relinquishing nearly five years of connections to return to a place where I know virtually no one. It was through no fault of my own that the work visa eluded me. In fact, I even found an employer that was, in theory, willing to sponsor my visa. When the time came to apply, however, it quickly became clear that the application would never be accepted, because my prospective job would not pay the required £30,000 per year. I would have been doing valuable work, conducting research and coordinating mental health advocacy programs for a charity, but instead I had to leave the country and return ‘home,’ to a place where I had no prospects and no connections. I simply wasn’t valuable enough for a conservative government determined to define people by their economic contribution alone.
It stings because, as an international student, I was one of the UK university system’s most valuable assets. They charged me around £6,000 per year more than home students, knowing that I’d fork it over for the sheer privilege of being able to study in jolly old England. I can’t say exactly what my tuition fees paid for, especially once I got to the PhD stage. I took no classes and spent most of my time doing fieldwork away from the university. I had library access, I suppose, but that hardly seems commensurate with the £15,000 yearly tuition. And when I asked the university for assistance with covering the cost of travel from my fieldwork site in London to the university in the North East of England, I was met with a flat ‘no.’
Money seems to be one of those taboo subjects in the academic world. You have to pretend that you can painlessly absorb all the costs of conducting a research project. When you can’t afford all the add-ons that come with even the most basic study, you have to pretend that it was just an oversight on your part and not a consequence of genuine inability to pay. I knew, for example, that I should have been attending conferences, but I simply couldn’t afford the conference fees and the accommodation and the transportation. I also knew that I should have employed professional interpreters to involve more non-English-speaking participants in my project. But when the minimum rate for interpreting services is £25 per hour and I did 28 hour-long interviews, I ask you: where is that extra £700 going to come from? Not from my threadbare pockets, that’s for sure.
Yet what really gets to me is that all of these budget-breaking costs are small change to a major research university. The officials may give lip service to the possibility of financial assistance, but when push comes to shove, they’d rather spend their funds on glitzy housing to lure in more rich students. And so the universities become a microcosm for the wider inequalities in society, and when a girl from small-town Michigan clambers to the top of the UK’s higher education system, the personal and financial consequences are devastating.
It was a vast miscalculation to study long-term in the UK, to imagine that I could have a life there, to spend years stoking the insane hope that somehow things would work themselves out. I write this not as a complaint, but as a necessary act of catharsis and, perhaps, a word of caution to anyone who may be considering following a similar path. If you have endless resources for visa fees, tuition, living costs, and you’re in a lucrative field of study, then, by all means, go for it. If you’re working with more modest resources, though, think twice. I may recover the financial losses in time; my confidence in education and immigration systems is unlikely to return.