Probe of the Yule slog

December 29, 1995

Christmas can be lonely for overseas students but a new survey hopes to make it happier, Tony Tysome reports. The council for international education, UKCOSA, is planning to launch a national survey into facilities provided for overseas students by universities over Christmas.

Maeve Sherlock, the council's executive director, commented: "It seems to us quite unacceptable if some universities are shutting down their facilities over Christmas."

The prospect of Christmas in halls of residence which may be miles from the nearest town is depressing enough for most students, but when campus facilities close for weeks and the only people around are the security guards, the experience could be close to unbearable for those whose families are thousands of miles away.

Many universities try to compensate by placing overseas students with families through a national scheme run by Host in London. The scheme, sponsored by the Foreign Office, the British Council and participating institutions, finds host families throughout the United Kingdom for thousands of overseas students throughout the year. The week before Christmas it had placed 1,248 in homes which can be as far away as the Shetlands.

Jo Caeser, joint chief executive of Host, says there are never enough host families in the most popular areas, but there is always a place somewhere for each student that applies. "This year most wanted to go to Scotland, but we never have enough there to meet the demand. But wherever they go, they really look forward to spending what they imagine will be a typically English Dickensian Christmas," she said.

For those who choose not to stay with host families, however, Christmas can be about as cheery as the Dickensian reality.

"Christmas on campus can be lonely if you are here on your own." This rather gloomy Yuletide message from Essex University's Wyvern magazine is not as glib as it sounds. At Essex, heat, light, power, telephones and catering facilities are reduced to a minimum or closed down completely in main campus buildings from December 22 through to January 2, while most campus restaurants, bars, shops and sports halls are also shut.

Melanie Rimmer, welfare officer for the university's student union, says the shutdown ought to be a matter for concern, with about a third of students at Essex coming from overseas, and many not returning home at Christmas. But she adds that so far it has not been raised as a serious problem. This may be because the university, like most with campuses not based in a town or city, tries to compensate for the "dead" period. A university spokesman said: "We do everything we can because it's so quiet on campus over Christmas, and hardly anything is open. We advise overseas students to stock up on food and to ensure they are in contact with others staying on campus." The university also places many overseas students with families through Host.

At the University of Kent at Canterbury, overseas students are placed in self-catering accommodation over Christmas, but the campus shops are shut and the nearest supermarket is half an hour's walk away.

Sam Firth, women's officer for Kent's student union, said: "It's generally quite miserable over Christmas. There is no entertainment or social events, and the campus is very empty. It's only overseas students that you see wandering around, and they look very lonely."

At Keele University, the student union has been pressing for a skeleton service to be maintained over the holidays after complaints were raised last year, when students were left without the means to buy provisions on campus for three days.

Even students at universities not based on greenfield sites can face problems. At Oxford University, colleges often close their catering facilities for weeks over Christmas, and sometimes use the vacation period to have maintenance work done on heating systems, according to Adam Shapiro, the university's student union president.

"There have been vacations when there is no hot water for a week. But it's hard to see what the university can do about it because the colleges make their own independent decisions," he said.

A code of practice issued by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals states that adequate services and facilities should be provided for overseas students throughout their stay at an institution, and that they should be made aware of vacation arrangements before a place is offered. But a spokesman said there were worries that growing financial pressures may force some institutions to cut corners. "The more universities are forced to close everything down over Christmas in order to contain their expenditure the harder it will be for everyone who has to remain on campus alone," he said.

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