Covid student chaos: Paying £30k a year and begging security for food


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image copyrightReese Chamberlain

image captionReese Chamberlain was excited to start his university career in Edinburgh

A student has told the BBC that international students are being forgotten in the Covid crisis engulfing Scotland’s universities.

Reese Chamberlain, who is studying at the University of Edinburgh, claims foreign students who are self-isolating are being forced to call security begging for food.

He said calls and emails to student welfare are going unanswered.

The university said it was supporting all students who were self-isolating.

The 18-year-old international relations student from New York says he is preparing to pack and fly home as soon as his period of self isolation is over.

Reese chose the University of Edinburgh because it offered him everything he was looking for.

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He said: “I chose Edinburgh because it looked to be a great diverse university with students from 195 countries. With the historic city and campus it was something I wouldn’t find in the US.

“I was looking forward to a completely different way of life in different surroundings and new people.”

“My experience coming into Edinburgh was great. The people were nice. I had to self-isolate for 14 days [when I arrived in Scotland] but I knew that would be the case.

“The three days of freedom I had were amazing. I climbed Arthur’s Seat and it was fantastic.”

image copyrightReese Chamberlain
image captionReese is studying international relations
But those three days came before one of his flatmates at Pollock Halls – the university’s largest accommodation site – tested positive for Covid-19. This put Reese back into self-isolation for a fortnight.
At the same time, infections blew up at universities across the country, leading to students being banned from socialising in bars and pubs.

When he chose to travel to the UK in a pandemic, Reese knew there would be no parties, no lectures in big halls, but he was happy to make the best of what he had. What he was not prepared for was isolation, food shortages and non-enforcement of the rules he was trying to stick to.

As the situation worsened last week, he watched the majority of UK-based students around him evacuate halls and return home.

£30,000 a year

He told the BBC he has now been left trying to comfort other students who have found themselves away from home and “feeling abandoned”.

He said: “I have had international students break down in tears over the lack of support. The only way I have been able to get food delivered is by calling the emergency security number and it is so uncomfortable doing that.”

His accommodation at Pollock is catered by one cafeteria and he has no facilities to cook for himself. Because he is self-isolating in his room, he relies on the university to deliver food. But sometimes nothing arrives until after lunchtime and on Tuesday he still had had nothing by 16:00.

As an international student, Reese pays £21,000 in tuition fees and £9,000 for accommodation per year to attend the University of Edinburgh. He believes students from abroad are paying the most and getting the least help.

image captionDozens of students are self-isolating at Pollock Halls

Scotland has a higher proportion of international students than any other of the UK nations at 22%, with more than 50,000 choosing to study here.

He said: “It feels like there is the minimum amount of effort for us, because they think we won’t notice.”

Reese’s mum Janie Chamberlain has had to watch her son go through this from 3,000 miles away via Facetime. She feels let down by the university after the promises it made on its website.

‘Woefully unprepared’

Speaking from New York, she told the BBC: “It was difficult to send him there but I felt incredibly reassured – if you look at the university website and the details of their Covid response it’s reassuring.

“They talk about mental health checks and a point of contact, so we felt he would be well cared-for and they were prepared.”

image captionNicola Sturgeon said there were “no excuses” for lack of welfare from universities

But Mrs Chamberlain says she was “stunned” by the reality.

“We are shocked that none of those things are there,” she said. “The university is woefully unprepared – their plan is good on paper. I am sure they had high hopes they wouldn’t have to execute that plan but they were truly unprepared.

“These students need help. Reese is resourceful but other international students may not be the same.”

Mrs Chamberlain has called on the university to “get creative”, to admit there was a lack of preparedness and “not make the students feel wrong for speaking up and advocating”.

She added: “We do know what they have been doing is not working. As a parent I don’t want something dreadful to happen to one of these students who might be less able to cope. There are students who don’t have a mum to call.”

At her coronavirus briefing on Tuesday, Nicola Sturgeon again called on universities to step up welfare responsibilities.

She said there was “no excuse” for universities not to look after the welfare of students self-isolating in halls of residence and they must ensure students received adequate food, following reports out-of-date food had been provided.

A Twitter account calling itself “Pollock prisoner” posted photos of out-of-date food provided to isolating students.

Talking about Pollock Halls in Edinburgh, the first minister said: “The responsibility of universities to look after the welfare of students who are in a self-isolating situation is paramount and there’s no excuse for universities not doing that properly and getting it right.”

A University of Edinburgh spokesman said: “University staff are working hard to provide care and support – including mental health support – for all students who are required to self-isolate by the Scottish government.

“Catering staff will provide three meals a day for all students living in University-provided accommodation. These meals are available in vegan and gluten-free options to ensure that all dietary requirements are met.”

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