(Names of the students have been changed after their request to remain anonymous.)
When Neha* moved to London from Jaipur, India five months ago, she did not expect life to be this difficult and stressful. Studying for a master's degree in sociology at the London School of Economics, Neha had to opt for an education loan to make it to her dream institution.
She lives in one of the LSE student accommodations, paying a rent that eats up a considerable portion of her spending. Neha plans to stay in London after graduation to do research.
However, after spending some time in the UK, she is doubting whether that would be the wise decision – amidst a cost-of-living crisis and an unprecedented number of strikes.
“It is just a lot of financial strain,” says Neha, 24. “I came to this country with a lot of hope but given the strikes in major sectors, I am not sure if it is favourable to even imagine living here. Seven of my classes (including lectures and seminars) have been cancelled, making a huge impact on my learning.”
The struggle of Neha and other international students and recent graduates is in line with the UK’s social, political, and economic crisis, which has significantly altered the life of the people because of the overall rise in inflation and industrial actions by workers.
The troubles experienced by foreign students have far-reaching consequences on their lives, education, and career.
Why Are Workers on Strike?
Since December last year, more than a million British workers are on industrial action across the UK – making it an extraordinary event in the realm of public memory, with walkouts planned by unions across sectors demanding better pay and working conditions.
The last two weeks, in particular, have been one of Britain’s biggest days of industrial action in more than a decade where tens of thousands are striking, largely supported by concerned voters.
Those on strike include bus drivers, civil servants, border forces, airport baggage handlers, university staff and teachers, Welsh physiotherapists, driving examiners in North England and Scotland, and national highway workers across the UK.
One of the worst affected days was 1 February, when 70,000 employees from 150 universities, 100,000 civil personnel, 14 railway operators, and eligible members of the National Education Union (NEU) went on strike.
At the heart of each dispute is a disparity between the amount of money allocated by the government and the demands of workers.
For example, nurses are asking for a 17 percent increase in pay whereas the government is offering only 4 percent. Teachers are asking for 12 percent raise while they are being offered only 5 percent.
In most economic activities, workers' purchasing power has already been reduced by inflation, which is already running at more than 11 percent. Labourers on the lowest salary have seen their real wages erode quicker because they spend most of their income on food, which has risen by record 16.7 percent in the four weeks to 22 January.
The series of strikes, some taking place concurrently, have caused massive disruption for the public service and complications for smoothly functioning everywhere. The government is still not heeding to the demands made by the striking unions, and amid the impasse, the strikes could continue for months.Expand
‘Frustrating To Lose Precious Time’
Aditya*, who recently began his studies at the University of Westminster, said: “How depressing and terrible this could become for someone who has recently shifted to a new country and is still getting used to things.”
Earlier, because of the pandemic, education was disrupted, forcing classes to move online – much of which is yet to return to normal. However, because of campus and transport strikes, some of the classes have shifted to online again, while some are completely called off, reminding students of the peak of the pandemic.
“Because of the tube strike earlier in the month, my one week's lectures were shifted to online mode. And that reminded me of the pandemic and how depressing it is to learn through online mediums,” Aditya says.
However, the impact of the strikes on campuses varies from department to department, even within the same university. Srishti*, an MSc candidate in Human Rights and Policy at LSE, faced major learning disruption because of the strikes.
For one of the electives that were heavily concentrated around seminars, the course director called off five seminars, which made her feel “disheartened.”
“It is frustrating to lose so much of your time in a one-year degree course because of industrial action,” says Srishti, who also has been struggling with “unfavourable” conditions.
She is not alone in her anguish. The university experience is not what many young people expected. To make matters more challenging, they are also dealing with a rising cost of living compounded by a lack of student accommodation and uncertain housing availability.
While some have cut down on their groceries and frequent visits to pubs, some have shifted to one meal a day. And most of them are taking on part-time jobs to simply make the ends meet.
According to the Student Loans Company, a non-profit making government-owned organisation that administers loans and grants to students in colleges and universities in the UK, the number of undergraduates dropping out rose by almost a quarter last year across the universities in the country.
No Help in Distressing Times
On the day when ambulance personnels were on strike, Srishti required one, as she is also a chronic patient. Her condition did flair up.
However, after somehow making it to the Urgent Care Centre, she was asked to wait for 7-8 hours. Following this, she ended up coming home – because by the time she would have gotten the ‘urgent care’ she could have booked an appointed with a general practitioner (GP).
“It was a terrible and sickening feeling to see the window for help when you needed it the most,” remembers Srishti. “As someone who is aware of what exact steps need to be taken in such situations, I was in a much better position. But what about others who do not know and get no help in such times?”
Tens of thousands of nurses and members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) throughout England have been striking, citing inadequate pay that leaves them unable to manage their expenses and excessive stress at work that has pushed several of them to the brink of suicide.
National Health Service (NHS) physiotherapists and Royal College of Midwives members in Wales, also joined the picket line this week for more than twelve hours.
While the government argues that the NHS has been spared the sweeping cuts to public services implemented over the previous decade, the impact of austerity on the NHS and the day-to-day work of nursing staff continues.
“I was unable to book an appointment with my GP and therefore I had to ask my parents to send me medicines from India – which are not only expensive but also take a substantial amount of time to arrive,” says Neha, mentioning how difficult it is to survive in such times in a foreign land.
Despite All, Solidarity for the Root Cause
“As a student of human rights, I completely understand that the intention behind disruption is to be heard. Though it is not the ideal thing, it is certainly the need of the hour as the formal and policy frameworks are not sustainable with the future of the education sector,” says Srishti.
More than 70,000 lecturers, librarians, cleaners, and other university administrators are set to walk out for 18 days between February and April across 150 universities. The University and College Union (UCU), led by Jo Grady, is revolting over a pay offer of 5 percent as well as proposed pensions reforms.
“Their precarious position is our precarious position. And therefore, despite facing problems, I am all up for strikes as they are fought for the right cause,” adds Neha.
Most of the students are not outraged by the impacts of the strike. Rather they are angry at the complicity and total rigidity of the government for not hearing their demands and the shambolic political sense emerging out of it.
Amidst this, on Thursday the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority declared a 2.9% increase in the overall salary of the current Members of Parliament to be considered from 1 April 1. Whereas workers and labourers are left with no choice, international students continue to suffer.
Kalrav Joshi is a multimedia journalist based out of London. He writes on politics, culture, climate and technology. He tweets @kalravjoshi_.