Current Affairs

University must act, or risks failing its international students, letter warns

A letter written and signed by hundreds of international students from across Oxford’s colleges has urged the University to take immediate action to ensure that overseas students can live and study safely and affordably in Michaelmas term.

Addressed to the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Louise Richardson, the letter warns; “International students are currently exposed to the inflation of travel prices, changes in visa rules, and volatile self-isolation requirements.”

“In the face of these difficulties, the University must prepare effective and transparent policies which will allow its international population to be prepared for the upcoming Michaelmas term, as well as the months beyond.”

The letter, written by many international students’ officers at various colleges, has been signed by over 520 students (as of 15:30 on 18/08/20), and details not only the current failings of the University’s and colleges’ policies, but also includes several demands which it says will help to ensure Oxford remains an institution renowned for the “diversity of perspectives and knowledge contributed by its international members.”

In the midst of the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic, and with Michaelmas fast-approaching, students are concerned that, “the University’s underwhelming responses will result in fewer international undergraduates applying and returning to Oxford, which would inevitably result in a less-diverse cohort, a weakening of Oxford’s international reputation, and a betrayal of the University’s timeless values.”

It urges the University to, “exhort its constituent colleges to take the welfare of their incoming and returning international students as seriously as possible, without seeking short-term financial gain at their expense. Thus far, it has failed to do so.”

One of the authors of the letter, Yun Kei Chow, who is International Students’ Officer at Christ Church, has told The Blue: “It’s quite difficult to be an international student now just because most things are decided on an individual basis – residency exemption, and/or different quarantine protocols in each college. This college system makes it so that the University delegates a lot of this responsibility to Colleges who just have to follow very vague guidelines – as if we’re all in different universities, and we can’t rely on friends in different for advice or questions.”

She added; “International student representatives have been worried and frustrated about this for the last few months, but we’ve been hoping that in time, the University would publish more clarifying points and those that would better support international students. Unfortunately, as our letter shows, we still found major issues with the University’s approach but we hope that this letter will allow us to work positively with them.”

Several colleges have been criticised for charging the full cost of rooms and catering for international students who have been forced to self-isolate for two weeks under government regulations. International students, “should not have to pay unforeseeable charges for uncontrollable circumstances,” the letter says, adding that, “The current policy is prejudiced against students of limited means.”

“Without fully-funded vacation residence, lower-income students, particularly incoming freshers, will be prevented from full participation in noughth and first week, both socially and academically.

Self-isolation requirements –for those unable to afford vacation residence and secure funding from their college– will prevent students from participating in induction activities and tutorials, which their affluent peers will benefit from. Fourteen days of additional term costs is not a negligible financial burden for some.”

The letter criticised the University’s response in comparison with several other UK universities, such as Oxford Brookes, Durham, St. Andrews and Exeter, who are all offering free accommodation for self-isolating students.

The Vice-Chancellor is warned: “Oxford must redeem itself as not only the foremost academic institution of the world, but also a place of care and sympathy for the students who make up its community.”

The letter then lists several requests of the University with regards to supporting international students during these unprecedented circumstances.

Most pertinently, the students demand “Fourteen days of fully-funded vacation residence before noughth week for all international students to self-isolate, should they so need.”

In addition, they call for “Practical assistance from college in providing food for students in self-isolation. This would include such services as providing access to food and removing/cleaning trash, as essentials for quarantine.”

Further, the University is called upon to waive the residency requirement for international students affected by the pandemic, citing the application guidelines as “vague and likely to cause confusion.” They add: “This is exacerbated by the inconsistent policies across colleges.”

With the dark clouds of a second-wave looming over Michaelmas term, the students have sought “Assurances that winter vacation residence will be available to students who may be prevented from returning home, due to a second wave or a vulnerable family member.”

Lastly, they call on increased transparency of plans, as well as as much uniformity across colleges as possible: “As of mid-August, most colleges have yet to inform students of their plans for the upcoming term and have been silent on self-isolation arrangements.”

The letter concludes; “As with the overwhelming majority of institutions, we understand that it must be difficult for the University to make decisions in this grim climate. Yet we urge you to consider that no matter what is decided, the University will be at a financial loss. Cutting losses should not be the main objective, but defending its long-term prospects: its ability to attract world-renowned academics, its global reputation, and its great diversity.”

The letter is open to all Oxford students to sign and is available at the following address, and will remain so until Sunday the 23rd of August, at which point the authors hope to send it to Prof. Richardson.

Max Spokes

Max (he/him) is Environment News Editor at The Oxford Blue for Michaelmas 2020. He is in his second year studying History and Politics at Balliol.