The inequality behind international student fees…

By Divya Venkattu

 The higher cost for international student fees stems from systems of oppression and colonisation.

When someone asks you “What is it that you miss the most about your childhood?”, it is often the “cute” things that come to mind – memories of eating devilishly sweet things, playing, sweaty-limbed in the school ground, visiting the beach with family, or the times you made up with your best friend after being cross with them for ages. All of them are enough to make up the script of a manipulatively feel-good Cadbury advertisement. But, if you ask me now, I know what my answer would be, without a doubt. It is being unaware of how unequal the world is. 

As a kid, I wasn’t completely oblivious that a few things were off, but there was nothing I realised was so colossally unfair about existence. For me, ‘privilege’ has transformed from a mere concept, a once-trending hashtag, to a lens through which the world can be viewed. It lies at the heart of each society, and it explains behaviour, attitudes, and ambitions. I still meet plenty of people who talk about their achievements as if they were their own, and no, attributing your successes to your ‘family and friends’ doesn’t cut it. Much worse, I have heard people discount the racist past of their nations with, “We wouldn’t be here if history didn’t unfold the way it did”. I’m not sure how one could talk about historical wrongs that continue to affect the way we live with the same speck of romanticisation you use when you describe how you met your partner – “Oh, it just had to happen, we were bound to be together.”

Having moved to the UK a few months back, I am able to observe whole new dimensions of privilege – of belonging to the ethnic majority, of being a certain nationality, of speaking the most-used language comfortably, and on a lighter note, the privilege of having a dishwasher. One of the omnipresent aspects of student life is money. Every university website has a proud, glossy page with a title that proclaims “Student finances”. As helpful as they like to make it seem, if you were to approach them or actually try to use those resources to seek financial assistance, you’ll find that it’s not as easy as it seems. Most universities classify students according to their fee status: you are either a home student (belonging to the UK), an EU/EEA (European Union/European Economic Area) student or an International student. Further, this is classified into part-time and full-time students. I have heard multiple times about how privilege gives you access to education and other facilities, but I have never observed this to the same staggering extent and in such proximity. And in this case, it is the privilege of having a certain nationality, of being born in a place. 

The resources that students get, to discover themselves, their passion, hobbies and ambitions are the same. You get access to the same massively well-resourced library, the historic buildings, the new buildings (all having state-of-the-art facilities), the various clubs and societies, and everything else that the University provides you with as a student. But, depending on which nationality you are, what you shell out to access those resources vary. My argument is not why European students receive the same education at a much lesser price (or even at no price, in some countries). Indeed, education is a public good and it is in each country’s interest to invest in their young population. Rather, it is about why overseas students, including those from countries that were formerly colonised, have to pay multiple times the fees of a European student. 

People who are uncomfortable with conversations on racial or caste-based inequality would love to forget the parts of their existence that are inherently oppressive. You did not just have a comfortable life, you benefited off of someone. Someone had to forego several aspects of their life for you to enjoy yours. When reparative measures are announced (which are not nearly enough), there are always groups from the privileged sections that will contest the “fairness” of these measures. Naming a building after someone from the community who your ancestors used as bonded slaves is not the reparation we need. 

The UK is one of the most sought-after places for higher education in the world; the quality of higher education and access to a range of resources make the student experience here unparalleled. However, UK universities need to re-evaluate their fee structures and take measures to make education more inclusive and accessible for all students, including overseas students. Maintaining the status quo will perpetuate inequalities by allowing students of some nationalities easier access to higher education in the UK than the others. Reparative measures by universities should extensively and specifically reach out to students from historically oppressed communities. If the goal is to move towards a more equal world, we need to have difficult conversations about our collective past instead of discounting the fact that colonisation has shaped the state of nations today; we need to show a sincere commitment to build an equal world through actions, as we move beyond mere dialogue on inequality.


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