International students on returning home for the winter vacation

Students are struggling to comprehend and comply with ever-changing travel guidance while trying to see their families over the Christmas holidays.

In light of the news of a travel window for UK students to return home for Christmas, how are international students affected, and has enough thought been given to help people spend time with their loved ones this December? I spoke to students from University College to get their perspective on travelling home for the Christmas vacation.

Kylie Chong is a student from Hong Kong studying Law, and she expressed her concerns over isolation restrictions and potential flight cancellations. This is her first term at Oxford and the longest she’s ever spent away from her family.

“We don’t know how [the travel window] affects international students. There are restrictions on flights, so we don’t know if that means we’ll be able to leave because if the airport is shut down then we won’t be able to fly anywhere at all. I have booked flights to go home and for me, I’m lucky because I’m from Hong Kong so when I go home I’ll have to isolate for 14 days but when I come back I don’t have to isolate. I do know a lot of people who have to isolate on both ends so they’re not going back, and even for people from Hong Kong, I would say it’s maybe half and half people that are going home and people that aren’t. We really don’t know how it’s going to work.”

When asked about how this has influenced the number of students planning to stay over the break she said it had “massively” increased. For many first-years, this term has been the longest period of time spent away from home and they would usually be going back to their families. This change, as a result of the lockdown restrictions, is an entirely unique challenge.

This year so far has already sparked a troubling rise in mental health concerns, with universities attempting to introduce more welfare measures and making greater allowances for remote learning. However, Kylie describes what she felt to be a lack of flexibility from Univ: “Initially they weren’t supportive because [a friend] applied to study from Hong Kong before this term but they denied the request, a lot of people had trouble trying to get permission to stay at home.” She says that they have since improved and are now trying to be as helpful as they can.

I also spoke to Chloe Bardou who is originally from France, though her family now live in Italy. She has settled status in the UK but is worried about how Brexit and the need to isolate will affect her ability to spend time with her family, who she hasn’t seen since August. She shares Kylie’s sentiments of anxiety surrounding the uncertainty of flights and last minute cancellations as well as worries over the logistics of splitting her time between friends in England and family in Italy.

“It’s actually really stressing me out because I had to think for a long time about what day I wanted to go home, what day I would be coming back – stuff like that. I’ve had to plan my holidays around it rather than planning my holidays around what I want to do. I haven’t seen my family since August, it’s not really something that I wanted to think about. When I come back I’ll have to isolate for two weeks which means I’ve had to leave a slot [before going home] to see my friends and I don’t get to spend as much time with my family as I’d like to.”

She’s also worried about the cost of isolating in Oxford with Univ charging just over £20 a day for accommodation in addition to living costs, totalling an estimated £13 a day for food and £20 for one load of washing. For a university notorious for its wealth, with a 2018 report by the Guardian revealing that the university itself has £3.2bn and the colleges combined have £5.9bn in combined assets and riches, Chloe feels that it is only reasonable that “some concessions should be made.”

With Brexit looming on the horizon, Chloe also faces the challenges of new border restrictions and increased paperwork to re-enter the country when she returns to her studies. She hasn’t booked a return flight because she is still unsure how the final Brexit deadline will affect her travel plans and whether she will have to return by the 31st of December.

Przemek is from Poland and is making plans to stay in Oxford over the Christmas break as the cases in Poland are rising fast and he is anxious about the political climate he faces back home.

“The main reason I decided to stay in Oxford is that the situation in my home country has worsened significantly. Also to do with political reasons, it’s not very safe in Poland right now; protests are happening so often and so spontaneously it is difficult to expect where it would be safe to remain for a prolonged period of time.”

The combination of political and pandemic related struggles pushed Przemek to apply to stay in Oxford. He says that while vacation accommodation was easy to sort the financial aspect has been much more difficult. He has applied for the hardship fund as he was not expecting to have to remain in the UK for the vacation and therefore will need extra assistance when it comes to living costs.

He said he found this difficult as some of the information he found especially on the Univ intranet was ‘contradictory’, but after speaking to the welfare fellow and chaplain he felt he understood the process much better. Prezmek has since been granted exemption from the cost of accommodation over the Christmas vac and is looking forward to staying in Oxford.

Sing is from Hong Kong and is also planning to stay in Oxford over the break.

“The risk of flying from London to Hong Kong is really high; being confined in that cabin for hours, it’s not good. The new restrictions came out saying that instead of isolating at home I’ll have to isolate in a hotel for 14 days, which I have to pay for! So the financial concern is the main reason I’m not going back.”

He found it easy to stay because he’s on a long contract so he’s guaranteed accommodation, but he will have to move out of his accommodation in the college grounds and stay in second-year accommodation at Stavonia. He also said that there are students from England that will be closer to Oxford than usual so he’s not worried about losing the social side of Christmas.

Financially, he has not found this decision too difficult as he has secured a scholarship to cover the living costs while he’s in Oxford. It would be more expensive for him to go home, due to the costs of a hotel to isolate in.

These students all express feelings of doubt and apprehension over the Christmas vacation. International students are facing difficulties previously unseen – trying to navigate the laws in the UK and see their loved ones. These concerns will continue possibly for the rest of the year. Is the University doing enough?