International students in the UK are considering packing their bags and going home amid anger over how universities have handled the coronavirus crisis.
A huge rise in cases has left university cities such as Sheffield, Leeds and Oxford on the brink of local lockdown.
Manchester Metropolitan University, which is popular with international students, is among the worst affected, with 1700 students asked to isolate themselves.
Mohammed Eissa, who is studying material sciences and engineering at the University of Sheffield, told The National the sharp rise in coronavirus cases has left many international students considering an early return home.
A total of 474 students and five members of staff tested positive for coronavirus at the University of Sheffield yesterday.
“The increasing number of cases among staff and students is indeed alarming and, as students, we’re constantly monitoring those numbers coming officially from the university website, which is updated very frequently," Mr Eissa said.
“Now we’re aware the cause of those infections is definitely not just the university but as of now, we are convinced our attendance would only take place if it’s an absolute must, which is not until semester two.
“Some students who are currently in Sheffield are even considering a possibility of return.”
On Sunday, authorities revealed an IT error led to almost 16,000 cases being accidentally left off the country’s official tally, causing several parts of the UK to be put on the coronavirus “watch list” and at risk of tighter restrictions.
Thousands of students across the UK had already been locked inside their dorms as the epidemic surged in halls of residence, putting universities under huge pressure to refund student fees.
International students often pay considerably more than the maximum local fee of £9,250 ($11,910) a year.
A petition demanding that universities refund tuition fees has so far gathered more than 200,000 signatures.
Iraqi Mohammed Fakhri, president of Glasgow University’s Middle Eastern and North African Society, said international students were also facing pressures such as the increasing difficulty of finding somewhere to live.
Glasgow is among 45 universities across the UK to be affected by coronavirus outbreaks.
Mr Fakhri said some students were holed up in hotels for long periods as they tried to find permanent accommodation.
“Even when there is no pandemic the logistics of moving to a new place is really hard. It’s now a whole lot harder,” he said.
“A lot of students are in hotels. Others are staying in their current residence even if they don’t like it.
“It's a really difficult time but we’re trying to salvage as much as we can.”
Appearing on BBC's Radio 4 Today programme today, Universities UK president Prof Julia Buckingham was challenged over whether enough was being done to promote student welfare.
Students had previously complained about a lack of information, support and even food.
“Individual universities have very clear procedures that they are following to report their return to universities," Prof Buckingham said.
“Many universities are providing far more mental health support than they do normally.”
UK Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced last week that classes could finish early so students had enough time to isolate before returning home for Christmas.
But most international students to whom The National spoke felt that was not a viable option.
'I won't see my family for a long time'
Mohammed Al Bastaki, an aeronautical engineering student at the University of Sheffield, said it would not be worth going home to the UAE given the need for quarantine.
“I hope we don't have to go into lockdown again, but it's starting to become more and more likely,” Mr Al Bastaki said.
“I'm not planning to go home in the winter break because it is only a month long and most of that would be spent in quarantine.
"But if we're locked down next summer, that'll be a big blow for me. I won't be able to see my family for the longest time.”
Mr Al Bastaki said it felt like the “UK was a lot more relaxed than the UAE” when it came to controlling Covid-19.
“The UAE's system seems to be a lot more thorough and comprehensive," he said. "We have temperature checks everywhere.
“Getting a test is a lot more accessible and easier for many people.
In the UK not many people wear masks, I've noticed, unless they are required to do so in like a store or a coffee shop.
"But walking on the street, even in the city centre, even if it's really crowded, people seem to neglect wearing masks.
"And social distancing isn't followed as strictly as it is in the UAE, or so I've seen.”
Fatima Al Qannati, who is studying material science and engineering at Sheffield, said: “In the UAE, wherever you go there are regular temperature checks.
"That might not be the case in the UK.”
And engineering student Hood Al Noamani, who is studying at the University of Strathclyde, also in Glasgow, said the shift to online learning was difficult.
“Normally we’d be in labs,” Mr Al Noamani said. “You’d be working with other people and you’d have the opportunity to ask a lot of questions. It’s much better than doing it virtually.”
The second-year student is now preparing for the pandemic to last for the rest of his degree but remains determined not to let it deter him from completing the course.
“Even if it stays like this I need to finish,” Mr Al Noamani said. “If I didn’t have this degree I wouldn’t have anything to do.”
The UK’s Universities Minister Michelle Donelan warned educational institutions that they should be upfront about what students were getting for their money.
“We’ve sent a very clear message out that they need to be transparent about what students could expect," Ms Donelan told MPs.
“Students are in fact customers … institutions need to be transparent about what they can offer in terms of student experience.”