Loneliness of overseas students at Christmas

December 25, 1998

Loneliness is the biggest problem faced by foreign students forced to spend the Christmas holidays in this country, according to Chris Ng, international student secretary at the University of Sheffield.

This year Sheffield has made sure that all these students are in the same halls of residence, so that even if they are not in party mood at least they have other people around. Students from the Far East and Southeast Asia are the worst hit because they may be unable to afford the air fare home given the economic downturn.

Latest figures show about 196,000 overseas students are studying in Britain. More than half of the undergraduates and nearly a third of postgraduates are from other countries in the European Union.

By far the largest group after this is from East Asia and the Pacific, with more than a quarter of undergraduates and about 30 per cent of postgraduates.

Miriam Roberts, international student adviser at International House in London, said: "Students arrive full of excitement. But they come to the depths of winter. It gets dark early. It is more expensive than they thought and harder than they thought.

"They realise Christmas here is very family-orientated whereas in some countries everyone is out on the streets. In England, Christmas can be quite dead."

The further students are from their own culture, the more problems they seem to have, she said.

"For Far Eastern students the financial crisis is going to make it very hard especially if they cannot afford to fly home," she said. The number of Chinese students staying in London is expected to be high this year.

Every year, International Students House and UKCOSA, the council for international education, provide dormitory accommodation for about Pounds 10 per night, Christmas lunch with all the trimmings and a series of events from Scottish dancing to karate to day trips and parties. Many of the events are free.

International Students House also runs a welfare service and a scholarship scheme, which provides some help for students struggling to pay maintenance or tuition fees and can sometimes pay for a trip home.

Arne Sjogren, spokesman for UKCOSA, said students also need more advice and support on how to keep healthy, eat properly and cope with the weather.

"Problems vary from country to country," she said. "Often it depends on their immigration status." The council has a few cases of students who are asylum-seekers or want to claim permanent residency. This restricts their ability to travel abroad, even within the European Union, and affects entitlement to welfare.

University international student departments refer students to International House and sometimes run programmes themselves. Otherwise students wanting a more family-orientated Christmas can go through HOST, a charity which matches them with volunteers who invite them to stay for a few days.

The organisation has about 1,000 potential Christmas hosts on its books and several thousand students. Spokesman Danny Edmunds said: "We are on the look-out for new hosts".

A sad season, pages 6-7

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