By Ibrar Mohammad
It was just last month after submitting my dissertation on Afghanistan-Pakistan geopolitics that I was on a high. My MA in South Asian Area Studies course at SOAS, University of London was finally coming to an end and I was hoping to move out of my student hall to a nice rented room in West London while looking forward to weeks of scouring through online job boards to find a decent job and staying in the UK with an eventual Graduate Visa. But all highs don’t last.
Only a day before I was to move to my new accommodation, the landlord who promised me the room cancelled his plans and decided to give the room to someone else. At the cusp of being homeless, I had to search for places and my desperation made me choose a small room in a poorly connected neighbourhood in East Acton with a rent of over £700 – an amount for which I took a loan.
Support us by contributing as little as £1 so we can continue to give young people a voice and a platform they deserve
With a minimum wage job in the hospitality sector, a long travel time, and difficulty in meeting the monthly rent, life doesn’t look that appealing in the UK. This, compounded with an economy in the doldrums, rising inflation, a cost-of-living crisis and a shambolic political scene has added to the discouragement of many international students like me trying to make it in this country.
International students make up for a large proportion of the UK’s university student count with some data suggesting that in 2020-21 there were over 600,000 international students in the UK; of which over 400,000 were from beyond the European Union countries. Of these, China and India form the bulk of students that arrive in the UK every year, hoping to get a degree, with many deciding to stay back and utilise their learnt skills.
Pain of Housing Market
The recent economic downturn in the UK, along with a cutthroat housing market has however added to the woes of many students’ hopes. In my case life has become just worrying about the next meal, travelling to my workplace on time and hoping to land a well-paying office job where I could use my six years of journalism experience to good use. Lately, that hope and the hope of a better life has been fizzling out. My mental health in shambles and my depression at its peak, I have often considered going back to India and pursuing a career there instead of my plans of gaining experience in the UK job scene. And I am not alone in this situation as the housing crisis has forced many to rethink their future in the UK.
London School of Economics graduate Kalrav, who hails from Gujarat told me that while his experience of studying in London was good, “it has been a challenging and stressful year.” With hybrid teaching in place, Kalrav could reside in Kent with his relatives for most of his MA course tenure. But since his course got over, he is finding it difficult to move to London and look for a job as he never anticipated the rent to be so high. With the energy crisis, many like him complain of how the rent of small rooms has sharply increased in the past few months. “It has become very difficult to even have the bare minimum lifestyle. With an education loan to pay back, I cannot afford to go back to India, even if my heart wants it.”
Recently I came across many students coming from South Asian countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh heading to the UK for their education, finding it difficult to pay high rent in London and other cities. Asif, a 23-year-old from Karachi, Pakistan had to search online for over two weeks before he could land an apartment in South London, nearly an hour away from his university campus. “I left my lucrative management job to study further and gain some international experience. But the start has already been depressing.”
For many, like the 22-year-old Isaac Hoeschen from the US State of Wisconsin, sustenance is now a question of survival after finishing his Masters course. He recently moved out of his student accommodation in Westminster Bridge to live with his brother and a friend at a flat in Hammersmith. “I got a full-time job but I cannot start the job as I am still here on my student visa and cannot apply for a graduate visa until my course finishes. This puts me in a precarious position where I cannot financially sustain myself for the next couple of months when the university finishes the marking process and shares the final score.”
The MSc Urbanisation and Development student believes that the University and the UK government should do more to help the afflicted students. “It is hard to find accommodation for students as the rents are high and with no proper job it becomes more difficult.” This was reiterated by Kalrav who stated that university institutions need to introspect and help students more often. “There should be better guidance on finding a job to even help students get a GP appointment as many students are struggling.”
Failing Mental Health
A symptom of the economic situation and of the lack of clarity for international students has been the deteriorating mental health situation. Geri, an Indonesian student at Westminster University was stressed out the moment she arrived in London last year in September. “My inability to find housing when I arrived stressed me out, and caused further instability in my life, impacting my mental health. With the high rent, I expected to be under a financial burden but not to a state where my mental health was affected.”
In my case, I needed mental health support and counselling during my course but could not find a valid and sustainable avenue. And I found out that my university cannot provide assistance once a student has graduated. This I find sad as I believe universities should accommodate their students’ mental health even after those students finish their courses.
The Way Out
These are extraordinary times in the UK. Hunger is on the rise and so is the inability of many to pay their bills. Such a precarious situation calls for swift action. A support group for international students is the need of the hour. This can include universities assigning a special team of mental health counsellors and practitioners for graduates who are no longer students.
At the same time there should be an investment in affordable housing. In the case of SOAS, we have the Paul Robeson House and the Dinwiddy House – both relatively affordable compared to most private student halls. But in the case of Paul Robeson House, students like myself were asked to leave the student hall just two days after we submitted our dissertation and many were unable to find accommodation. Many had to bunk in rooms of friends and acquaintances.
The presence of a community of international students could stabilise the chaos that many are feeling in their life right now. I believe the alumni groups of universities need to be clear and present for the new graduates and share their insights with them. One possible solution could be rent control in the case of international students or recent graduates as many would not be expected to join the job market as promptly as finishing their course. This will do wonders for many reeling from financial instability and those who have been victims of predatory high rents.
Thanks for reading our article! We know young people’s opinions matter and really appreciate everyone who reads us.