Help these smart students – don’t hinder them
Published by The Independent (18th August, 2015)
Having worked hard at school, Emmanuel Opoku was rewarded with exceptional exam results and looking forward to university. Despite his tough background in east London, the teenager had big ambitions, hoping that a chemistry degree at world-renowned Imperial College, London, would be followed by a lifetime of scientific research helping to increase access to medicines in the developing world.
But these noble hopes were dashed after discovering that he had to pay international student tuition fees of £26,500 a year rather than those of his classmates, capped at £9,000 – and that, despite his British education and upbringing, he was not allowed to access the student loan system. On top of this, he had to find living expenses for London. ‘I was so shocked because I didn’t have a clue this might happen,’ he told me. ‘I’d worked so hard, only to be told I could not carry on.’
The cause of this shock was simple: he had come to this country as a small boy from Ghana and had been given discretionary leave to remain rather than full citizenship. So here was a model student, seeking to become a much-needed scientist in order to make our planet a better and more equitable place. Brought up by a struggling single mother who held down several jobs at once to support her two children, he had defied the odds of boys from his background to stand on the brink of success.
But Emmanuel’s dreams still lie in the balance. He spent a year as a field researcher in Gambia after having to postpone his studies, followed by another year as a teaching assistant in London, saving his salary to support himself at university. He found a scholarship to fund a big chunk of those massive fees. And now this determined young man is crowdfunding in a last-ditch attempt to take up that university offer in October before it is withdrawn.
He is not alone in his predicament. For Emmanuel is one of hundreds of bright school-leavers who each year discover that they are blocked from going to university because they are not technically British. There were at least three others in his academy alone. For most of them, this is a surprise – they have lived and studied in this country, often since primary school. Yet despite hard work and lawful residency, they find themselves forced to watch friends overtake them while they try to raise funds or, more likely, abandon hopes of a higher education.
These smart, motivated young people could not be further from those false stereotypes of migrants milking the benefits system; they merely want student loans, like their classmates. Indeed, government studies find men with degrees pay on average £264,000 more in tax than non-graduates over their lifetimes. Yet the Coalition tightened student finance regulations three years ago, barring scores of state educated high-flyers from university – although officials claim it was just a tweak to existing rules.
All these potential chemists, engineers and psychologists are collateral damage from the immigration crackdown, which prompts so many crass policies. This weekend, we saw the latest headline-grabbing salvo, with the Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, asking if immigrants are lured to Britain by free lessons for children. In reality, they are mostly attracted by Britain’s economic success – and studies show they boost the performance of schools, as seen so clearly in London. But politicians don’t like facts to intrude on this toxic debate.
Yet what makes these cases worse is that some of these students succeeded despite the worst possible starts in life, as highlighted by Let Us Learn, a campaign group set up two years ago by a Londoner who was stopped from studying law at the London School of Economics. They highlight one case of a girl trafficked to Britain aged seven, who suffered terrible trauma and turmoil, but went on to achieve some of the best exam marks in the country – to the delight of her teachers – only to be prevented from fulfilling her promise at university.
Last month, such discrimination was challenged in the Supreme Court by Zambian-born Beaurish Tigere. She has lived in Britain since the age of six, becoming head girl at school and winning a place at Nottingham University. The court’s deputy president, Lady Hale, declared the ban unjustified and said victims “will find it hard to understand why they are allowed access to all the public services, including cash welfare benefits, but are denied access to this one benefit which is a repayable loan”.
The judge is right. It is not just hard to understand, but utterly bizarre given the numbers involved, the investment in their education and the comparatively insignificant sums involved for the student loan book. Yet the Government insists that this was a one-off case and has refused so far to relent on their myopic stance.
They should reconsider fast. This is one of those minor government decisions that makes few waves and yet impacts with dreadful weight on a small number of residents. For all the froth and fury over immigrants, here are a few arrivals who provide fine examples to their peers and other Britons. Yet they are treated with bureaucratic contempt. Westminster should help the likes of Emmanuel and Beaurish, not place hurdens in the path of people with so much to offer society.