Afghan Chevening scholars ‘let down’ by UK universities

Refugee academics claim they face steep accommodation fees and scant relief from institutions

November 11, 2021
Woman holding umbrella over her head to illustrate Afghan Chevening scholars ‘let down’ by UK universities
Source: Getty

Afghan Chevening scholars who have been evacuated to the UK have claimed that the programme is treating them unfairly and failing to assist with their basic needs.

Students at three different institutions, who were awarded fully funded scholarships to study master’s degrees, reported being locked into expensive accommodation by universities and given insufficient mental health support.

Chevening scholars who spoke to Times Higher Education said they were torn between purchasing necessary items, such as food and books or a refurbished laptop, and supporting families back at home suddenly left without income.

“I still haven’t managed to send anything to them – I cannot send them more than £120 because I have a lot to do here; I have to purchase books and medicines. But if I don’t do that, they will die from hunger,” said one scholar.

All three students speaking to THE said they were using their Chevening stipend, worth just over £1,100 per month, to send money to family back at home because they had become the sole breadwinner for their family.

But they said that universities continued to expect them to pay what for them are steep costs, with little financial relief.

Students who came to the UK alone under the Chevening programme said they had to foot the bill for upmarket university housing, while their counterparts with families have received free housing through the Home Office.

One scholar said that while in quarantine he had been told to agree to pay his university more than £600 per month for accommodation, which he is currently appealing. He said he was unable to break the contract and find cheaper housing until he paid all outstanding dues.

Another scholar was told that she had to move to her campus hours from London immediately after finishing quarantine. Only a week later was she told that all her classes would be online.

“If they told me that [earlier] I would have stayed in London,” she said. “I have good friends in London, but they made me come here without any support.”

Only one of the students said her university had offered temporary rent relief – but she too will need to begin paying from January.

All the Chevening scholars who spoke to THE said they had come to the UK with nothing more than a single change of clothes. While they expressed gratitude for the help they had received and praised the kindness of staff members, they said their universities had offered little in the way of help, besides one-off vouchers for food and kitchen equipment worth between £50 and £150.

While one student said his university had provided him with money for a computer, another said her institution was only able to loan her a machine for two weeks, forcing her to buy her own laptop.

The students’ struggle to meet basic needs comes on top of an already staggering emotional burden. One scholar said her house had been ransacked by the Taliban shortly after she fled the country. Another feared that the next time the Taliban called, her father would be taken away.

All the scholars reported suffering from mental health issues including panic attacks, depression and insomnia.

“When I got to the UK I didn’t sleep at night…I wasn’t able to eat anything. It’s still difficult to eat,” one said.

But the students who had sought mental health support said counsellors at their universities were unaccustomed to dealing with refugee issues. One student said he turned to YouTube psychological counselling for comfort.

“When you live in a country like Afghanistan, you think the West is like heaven…I never expected this,” one student said.

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