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COVID-19 bears down on the weight already shouldered by international students

As the university campus and accommodations emptied on March 12th upon the announcement of a global pandemic and college closure, the international student population had more decisions to make than the average student – how to get home, and how to return to UCC when or if the need arose. Students from overseas make up 15.6% of the overall UCC student population. Now, the college experience has been transformed into something unfamiliar, on-line and off-campus. Dealing with costs and distance far exceeding that of the average student at UCC, international students have been confronted with many challenges as the COVID-19 pandemic wears on.

In accordance with government advice, students arriving from a non-’Green List’ country were required to restrict their movements for a minimum of 14 days from their arrival in Ireland. This fortnight of self-isolation required accommodation. NUI Galway, University of Limerick and University College Dublin made on-campus accommodation free for those required to restrict their movements. UCC continued to charge it’s standard weekly rate of €171, despite two Uninest complexes in Cork offering free accommodation to “ease the burden on students who must self-isolate when travelling for their studies,” a spokesperson said.

Uninest had previously come under controversy for its refusal to refund students who had to leave their accommodation early as a result of the onset of the pandemic, their offer of free accommodation came as a double-edged sword for Craig McHugh, vice-president of campaigns at the Union of Students in Ireland (USI): “The luxury private student accommodation industry has thrived off international students and students who can afford to pay such fees for accommodation ranging between €9,000 and €15,000, so maybe two weeks is really just a drop in the ocean at the end of the day for the amount of money that students have been forking out over the last number of years.”

In 2017, the Evening Echo posed a question in one of their headlines: “Is UCC using non-EU students as ‘cash cows’?” The piece surveyed figures released to Fianna Fáil TD for Cork South-Central, Michael McGrath, during parliamentary questions at the Dáil. The data demonstrated that the total national income generated from just non-EU medicine students rose from €7.2 million in the 2010/2011 academic year to €13.5 million in 2016, and that individual fees per international medicine student climbed from €39,200 to €47,000 during that same time period.

International students at UCC pay between €12,500 to €48,700 depending on the course they are enrolled in, and Irish universities rely heavily on the income generated. Of the €8.9 billion the seven IUA institutions in Ireland contribute to the State’s economy, international student fees account for €2.1 billion.

The University Express spoke to a number of international students about their experiences at UCC since the beginning of the pandemic. Although this group does not represent the universal experience of all visiting students at the university, their issues illustrate those raised by the Irish Council for International Students and highlight their presence at UCC.

One international undergraduate student of Arts at UCC told the University Express: “in a way we are ‘cash cows’, just giving and not getting much in return. I know there are several students who are struggling. Some were not able to even go home, like me.”

“I did not get to travel back home when the lockdown was first announced. I have been in Cork for over a year, and I have not been able to see my family since I moved here for the first time.”

COVID-19 has resulted in a loss of revenue for higher and further education institutions across the country, the cultural experience and contribution of international students to campus life has largely been lost in the digital transition. Another criticism levelled by students who spoke to the University Express was the loss of adequate lines of communication between the college and students. According to one international PhD student: “UCC has been comically inept at communication in advance of term. Personally, UCC told me they were withdrawing my scholarship and then only when I checked on this was I informed that they had changed their mind. I spent months trying to figure out if I could even return to the program or where I could get the money, and then it turned out to be a non-issue that they forgot to mention.”

For another student, at least, the movement to virtual learning has been positive: “As an introvert I am enjoying the anonymity of online learning but at the same time feel a bit robbed of the ‘traditional university experience that I was picturing when I decided to study abroad.”