Joe Sandler Clarke talks to Syrian students struggling to support themselves due to the war back home
Syrian students at UK universities have described their situation as a “nightmare”; as turmoil back home leaves them unable to pay their tuition fees and struggling to support themselves.
The war in the country, which has raged since 2011, combined with sanctions placed on Assad’s regime by the international community, and the closure of the Syrian embassy in London has left many students in a precarious position.
One Masters student at the University of Salford – whose fees were supposed to be paid by the Syrian government via their home university – received a letter dated January 7th 2013 stating that they could not “graduate or complete their studies” unless fees amounting to £10,140 were paid to the University.
In the absence of funding from their sponsor in Syria, the student says they have struggled to support themselves financially.
“In the beginning I asked my family to send me money, but with the situation there I can’t ask them to send me more,” they say. “My savings have nearly finished.”
The University of Salford have now agreed to allow Syrian students to complete their studies and pay their fees at a later date. Salford has also stated that they have a hardship fund which students can apply to if they are in financial difficulty.
A PhD student at a university in England explained that the situation in his country has left him unable to pay his fees for close to a year. He says he has become increasingly worried about his situation in recent months.
“My financial reserves in the bank are running quite low,” he explains. “I don’t want to focus on work, because that will add extra pressure.”
Other students say that they find themselves in a similar position. A student studying for a Masters in this country says that since his money from his sponsor in Syria stopped he has struggled to support his day-to-day existence.
“I’ve had times in the UK where I haven’t money for my daily life,” he explains.
“I worked over the summer. I’m allowed to work for 20-hours-a-week [under the terms of his student Visa]. Of course it is not easy to find a job. I sent my CV everywhere; hotels, cleaning – anything.”
He says that he has yet to receive support from his institution.
“I have told the University that the situation is out of my control. I go to my professors. I go to the students’ union, student life, financial department. I’ve had no answer. I’m still trying to find a way. Some of my friends in different cities, their university connected them with organisations or charities to support them financially. But me, I’m still waiting for an answer.”
For many the financial problems they face in the UK are compounded by their worries about their family’s back home. The UN estimates that as many as 60,000 people have died in the conflict in Syria; while many more have fled the country as refugees.
The Masters student describes his family’s situation as a “nightmare”.
“Every time I call my family I tell them that everything is okay, but the truth is that everything is not okay. I have not told them that there might be a danger of me not being able to stay in this country. I don’t want to add pressure to their life. It’s a nightmare.”
He goes to say that one of his neighbours was tortured by Assad’s forces. “He was 18 years-old, he was in high school and he was on a demonstration. They took him for 18 days and they tortured him with electricity until he was unconscious. If the regime stays, then I cannot go back.”
The British Government says that it recognises the difficult situation Syrian students find themselves in, but that it is unable to offer support.
A statement from a spokeswoman from the Department of Business Innovation and Skills read: “The Department has consulted HM Treasury (HMT) about the difficulty some students are facing in receiving payment from Syrian banks through the Syrian Embassy.
“HMT has issued licences to the banks concerned to allow them to deal with funds that are subject to an EU asset freeze and transfer this into the students’ personal accounts. Now the Syrian Embassy is closed, students should apply directly to HMT for a licence.”
There are around 600 Syrian postgraduate students in the UK. A minority of who are here under the terms of the Higher Education Capacity Building Project (HECBP) scholarship, which is supported by the British Council.
The British Council has set up a hardship fund for those in students studying in this country under the terms HECBP to give out grants to support students with their living costs. So far it has paid, or is set to pay, 58 of the 100 students who are in the UK under the terms of the agreement.
All of the eight partner universities in the UK involved in the scheme – Brunel, Edinburgh, Essex, Heriot-Watt, Manchester, Marjon (St Mark and St John), Newcastle and Warwick – have agreed to either defer or waive fees for this academic year.
The British government has left it to universities’ to decide how to support Syrian students.
“We recommend that universities and scholarship awarding bodies use their own discretion over fees, and their welfare and hardship funds to help support these students if possible. In some cases universities have temporarily suspended fees or provided financial support to students.
“We would urge students to speak to their University welfare departments and Student Union Welfare officers.”
The statement added that the Department for Business Innovation and Skills is “not aware that any students have been removed from their courses as a direct result of the political situation in Syria and the impact this has on their ability to access funding.”
For some Syrians, the Government’s stance is not good enough.
“The British government should be doing more regarding the fees,” argues the PhD student. “The government should intervene. This is affecting Syrians living in every country. They should have some responsibilities to the Syrians in the UK.”
The National Union of Students has also come out against the Government’s position, with the organisations’ President Liam Burns stating: “what we urgently need to see is every Syrian student is given support when finances aren’t forthcoming so they can continue their studies.
“This has to be the least the UK can do considering the tragic circumstances of the conflict in Syria.”
The NUS are understood to be discussing a motion to urge UK universities to waive or reduce the tuition fees for Syrian students.
A petition called ‘Stop UK universities from expelling Syrian students!’ has – at the time of writing – attracted close to 30,000 signatures; while the charity ‘Council for assisting refugee academics’ (CARA) have launched a ‘National Appeal for Syrian Academics’.
A number of universities have agreed to offer support to Syrian students at their institution, with some waiving fees altogether and others allowing students to continue their studies and pay their fees at a later date.
One PhD student told me that his institution had done “all they can” to support him. Providing him with financial assistance to support his daily life and waiving his tuition fees.
Meanwhile, when quoted in Times Higher Education last October, Lucy Shackleton – European policy officer at Universities UK’s international unit – stated that there was a “widespread commitment to helping Syrian students” within the universities sector.
In a statement the University of Salford insisted: “We are sympathetic to the exceptional circumstances affecting our Syrian students and we are committed to doing everything we can to support them. We have been in contact with the students and we continue to offer them one-to-one advice tailored to their personal situation and to help them try to resolve any funding problems they may have. We do not wish to see any student disadvantaged by genuinely distressing circumstances which could affect their ability to complete their studies.”