International students at the University of Sussex have appealed for a reduction to their tuition fees, stating that the coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately affected them. While they acknowledge that university staff are “doing their best”, they say that university management have failed to take into account the impacts on EU/International students that might not apply to UK students. 

Over 200 international students and counting have signed an open letter, which has been delivered to Vice Chancellor Adam Tickell, Pro Vice Chancellor Kelly Coate, and all heads of schools. In the letter, they detail the specific issues that international students have experienced since the Covid-19 pandemic shut down the university, and teaching was moved to an online platform. Currently, the only advice issued to international students is government guidance on travelling home, and information about graduation and visas. 

First and foremost, the letter highlights that online courses provided by the University of Sussex cost substantially less than standard international tuition fees. For example, an online MSc in International Marketing costs £11,450, but a campus-taught MA in the same subject would cost an international student £22,500. As such, they feel that the University’s decision to keep tuition fees in place is questionable, and that the online teaching provided does not justify the extortionate fees they have to pay. The letter reads: “the University cannot justify charging the same fees for a rushed compilation of online resources that are not equivalent to the course as originally offered; Particularly where the online teaching is rushed, overcrowded and not a part of the initial plan”. 

It goes on to say that the University’s claim that their online teaching is “of a high standard” is unfounded: “Remote teaching consisting mainly of recorded lectures and discussions on canvas cannot be considered as optimal or an adequate replacement for the ‘high standard of education’ we originally expected to receive. Not to mention, some courses are still missing essential parts of their learning such as class discussion, interaction, and peer feedback.”

The letter then explains that for some international students, it is impossible to access online material provided by the University. For example, due to strict internet censorship in China, many Chinese students cannot access Zoom – the platform favoured by a vast majority of university staff to deliver online lectures. 

International students are also facing the prospect of taking their exams in the middle of the night due to the time difference between their home country and their UK university. The National Union of Students called on universities to cancel all summer term exams when it came to light that international students at Imperial College London were told “being in a different time zone cannot be used as a mitigating circumstance” and they must be “available at the correct UK time, wherever they are”. 

The financial impacts of the coronavirus pandemic has been felt by the vast majority. However, the open letter states that international students are once more disproportionately affected – many of whom have had to travel across the globe at the last minute, and this is far from cheap. The letter reads: “This shows that the University has not considered these issues and the additional precarity of travelling and shifting accommodation that many students living abroad have had to deal with.”

Finally, international students feel that one huge factor has been completely ignored by the university: that they might not ever return to their UK University. The letter claims it is “extremely strange” that there has been no official communication regarding the “mental agony” that most international students are now experiencing:

“Most of us will not get this chance again to study at an international university. This dedicated one year, which was a dream for many, has been snatched out of our hands, first with the strikes and now with the pandemic, and that in itself is a crucial point of distress we are grappling with.”

International students at the University of Sussex have therefore asked that the University shows “more empathy and fairness” towards them, and asks that they provide them with “suitable options”, such as a reimbursement or reduction of fees: “The University should understand that this is an exceptional circumstance and particularly acknowledge the impact it has on students living abroad and/or paying international fees. Seeing as some of the effects are unavoidable, we feel that the University should be more considerate towards the needs of students and not categorise them in the same homogenous group as the domestic student.”

The Badger spoke to two students who co-authored the open letter. Shanavi Dessai, Law student, said:

“Many students have been encountering a lot of issues because in South Asian countries as you might know they don’t really take mental health seriously. In fact the University should have a separate portal for international students, because a lot of international students are stuck in a foreign country without their family, short on cash.”

Rachel Nielsen, a Drama and Film Studies student, said:

“My parents have worked so hard to be able to afford sending me halfway across the world to study at an institution that boasts about its diversity and inclusion, so it’s really frustrating to feel like I’m being cheated or not getting my money’s worth enough to make them proud.”

The Badger has approached the University of Sussex regarding their stance on reducing fees for international students in light of the disproportionate consequences the Covid-19 pandemic has inflicted on them, and will provide an update on their position as soon as we receive this.

The students union issued an update today, stating that the University is “aware” of the open letter, and it is currently “under review”. Students should expect communication in the coming days.

You can find the open letter here: An Open Letter from Students Who Live Abroad (EU & International) at the University of Sussex

Image Credit: Kyle Glenn

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