Contrary to popular opinion, international students are not ‘homogenous’ and they need a voice, says PhD student, Rahul Ranjan.

Images of international students in the UK have managed to make it on to the covers of magazines, newspapers, and even advertising billboards. His or her invariably happy and joyous face gives the impression that an international student is someone who can potentially splurge on a shopping trip to London’s Oxford Street.

These representations also tend to be set against a backdrop that is worthy of a travel brochure. In the images, student accommodations are primarily located in central London, floors may be constructed of glass, and the windows of rooms often face towards one of the capital’s tourist attractions such as Tower Bridge. Circulated widely through social media and other advertising medium, they construct a stereotype of students who have unlimited purchasing power.

This culture has rapidly allowed the co-option of international students into a neoliberal demand ‘market’ category. They tend to expose exuberantly expensive lifestyles; thereby allowing the market to expand and develop a consensus around such images to treat them as an ‘asset’. And I strongly believe that by behaving as ‘assets’, they  allow the state and the universities to avoid any imaginative rethinking about overseas students and housing.

Of course, some students do come from families able to afford such accommodation (which may cost more than the average salary of a British family). But the reality is somewhat different. Against the image of the conspicuous consumption of some students, there are others who, after much calculation, take numerous flights and layovers to save funds that could be used towards food and clothing. These students represent a migrant class that continues to remain under-theorised in terms of their experiences.

They are not descendants of Maharajahs, nor do they hold any real estate in their home countries. They represent the everyday struggle that involves in squeezing onto the early morning Tube, queuing up for free Hare Krishna meals from mobile campus kitchens, picking up Pret a Manger’s end-of-day donated food and taking advantage of other discount opportunities. They also seek appointments to view shared flats, where a diverse range of ‘foreign’ experiences await, sometimes hostile and bullying, sometimes pleasant.

They also come to the UK’s universities having met standard qualifications; often as someone who have set records in their home universities, published widely and grasped education with rigour and calibre. Besides, they are also citizens of their own countries, where their parents work hard to allow their children to have access to renowned education institutions. Sometimes, it may also come at the cost of the families ‘downsizing’ their own needs and lifestyles, or burden under the severe weight of loans.

They are also children of parents, who have had to become familiar with advanced technologies to remain in touch and negotiate timetables to make sure the call comes, or is made, at the right time. They are also the sons and daughters of mothers, who worry constantly about their wellbeing and  diets.

I believe that international students, no matter where they go and study, are always an internally differentiated class. The attempts by the market and education institutions to ascribe a homogenous picture to overseas students, radically obstruct our understanding about these ‘transit immigrants’ who come to the UK to earn a degree and enjoy different experiences. And if students ‘benefit’ from the infrastructure of an institution, the university also in disproportionate measure benefits from them.

The lack of awareness by universities, that resist calls from students who want to discuss their experiences, is alarming and highlights the poverty of thinking. These experiences, if heard and understood, would allow institutions to register cases of racial abuse, economic hardship and mental health issues among others.

These problems are not ‘extra-care’, and certainly cannot be understood within the logic that illustrates the student as assets; they require broadening our horizons of understanding. An attempt to humanise the ‘deaf’ walls of institutions that claims to support their students would help. As would allowing student voices to be heard.

Rahul Ranjan is a PhD student at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS) at the School of Advanced Study (SAS), University of London.