International students are one of the most important revenue streams for universities in Australia, the USA and Europe. A complex network of people and organisations that ranges from university ‘international recruitment’ offices to in-country ‘consulting firms’ work to identify families from source countries, typically developing countries in Asia and Africa. These families are persuaded, through a combination of glossy marketing and peer pressure from others in their extended network, to take on debt and pay black market rates for false paperwork to show that they, and their children, meet stringent financial and diplomatic criteria so that they can apply for precious student visas. If they are lucky enough to pass through several narrow portals—some of which are controlled by easily corruptible privatised visa and accreditation agencies, as well as educational institutions that are often little more than visa scams—they may be granted a visa to study in a desirable destination country. Of course the immigration officials know that families put forward their children for student visas in the hope of eventual emigration—hence the deeply hypocritical language around a requirement to show that a student intends to return to their home country, and that the family has sufficient capital and income to guarantee their wellbeing.
The amounts of money required are wholly absurd when measured against what the international development department of that same government knows to be true about the actual wealth of most families. If ever we multiplied the number of mysteriously wealthy student applicants by the wealth they each claimed to have, we would discover that these ‘developing’ countries were, in fact, far wealthier than the countries into which they wish to come to study. For example: according to the World Bank, Nepal has a GNI of $970 US. For an Australian student visa, the student must show either an annual income of AUS$ 70,000 (~ $41,000 US) or sufficient funds to cover tuition (depending on course fees and so on, ~$25,000 US / year). Yet every year, hundreds of Nepalis come to Australia—and they are not all from the extremely small cluster of wealthy elite families. We could repeat this analysis for the USA or, indeed, the UK, where the conditions of entry have now become so absurd that even very wealthy Nepalis (let alone students from developed countries) cannot attain the required criteria.
Once arrived, they are highly vulnerable, and are often further exploited by landlords (often co-nationals) who cram several students into a single bedroom; by employers who use the threat of exposing students who have to work more hours than their visa allows to force them to work long, underpaid hours; by educational institutions that offer useless qualifications; and by immigration systems that constantly raise the already impossible threshold required to stay as a student, let alone attain some kind of work visa or more secure residency.
Such students work long hours for very low wages, and often live on meagre diets with frequent illness—they are a specific and uniquely vulnerable part of the precariat, caught between the threat of debt and shame from home, and a truly awful material existence with no future in the country where they study. Often these students are also trapped in arrangements where the threat of shame and violence is magnified because the marriage they contracted before leaving their home country was dependent on getting a student visa.
Now these same students are being hit hard by COVID-19. We read every day about how mysterious it is that some international students refuse to return home—yet those students know perfectly well what is at stake. They have been forced by an exploitative economic system to produce false documentation; they are blackmailed by unscrupulous employers who flout the labour laws; and they are far, far from home. They are at risk of losing their student status, at risk of losing their only source of income, and they have quite likely been told not to come home until they can bring either money or permanent residency to their families. They do not have access to the legal representation of refugees, nor do they have access to the social safety net that permanent residents and citizens have. They are not, quite, homeless.
Right now, what we see in the news is shops running out of food, children needing entertainment, and pubs, hotels and restaurants being closed. But we have forgotten (if we ever knew) the fact that there are many precarious international students who did the unseen, underpaid labour in those hotels, pubs, and restaurants. Right now, these students are not in a condition to pay their rent or meet their daily needs; they are literally begging for food, and if they do fall ill with COVID-19, they have scant access to health services. Where there are emergency COVID-19 financial programmes to support self-employed or jobless workers, these programmes are not open to international students, who have had to declare that they are self-sufficient.
There is a terrible logic of internalised racism that is used to sell degree courses in English-speaking and European countries to students from developing countries: it requires that the source families accept a promise of security and benevolence, and even the faint chance of success projected by the consultancies and educational institutions, all the while knowing it is hollow. Now, perhaps, it is time to show a bit of grace and genuine benevolence. Can those governments set aside the polite (and very useful) incoherence between the image of yearning, eager and mysteriously wealthy students in the Immigration Office and the image of hungry, underdeveloped and exploited families in the International Development Office? They are in your country, they are an especially vulnerable and exploited precariat, and they are falling ill. Can host governments, for once, treat these students as human rather than just conveniently obscure sources of labour and money that prop up the economy? Unlike the international education economy and its agents, COVID-19 greets everyone equally regardless of our race, our colour, our religion.