Samia* returned to Bangladesh two years ago, after a harrowing experience in the UK where she went for higher education. She had spent the last eight years struggling to receive a quality education there.
Her journey to the UK started in 2009, fresh from completing her HSC exams here. The first from her family to go abroad for higher education, Samia did not know exactly where she wanted to study but was just able to convince her father to pay to send her to the UK so that she could get a much-coveted overseas degree. She doesn’t recall the name of the Dhaka agency she went through, but told them that she wanted to study law.
“The agency told me that a business degree was in session soon and that I would be able to change my subject once there, it wouldn’t be a problem,” says Samia, whose family lives in the south of Dhaka district. “At the time, I didn’t know how these things worked and knew nothing about London. A friend lived there, so I said I wanted to be admitted to a university in London.”
The agency assured Samia that she would be studying at a college in London but once in the UK, she found that she had been enrolled in the University of Bedfordshire (in the county of the same name, more than a two-hour commute from London). “When I got to the university and said that I don’t want to study business but law, they said you can’t change it. They told me if you want to change you have to go back [to Bangladesh], re-apply and then come back.”
Deciding that was not an option but feeling unsafe commuting back and forth from London, Samia enrolled in another college. This however drew the ire of her parents, particularly her father, who had already paid in full for her studies at Bedfordshire, according to her agreement with the agency back in Dhaka (which received a commission from the university in exchange).
Around that time, Samia’s new college was one of many institutions closed down in a crackdown by the British government. Between 2008 and 2009, ‘bogus’ colleges which were unaccredited and with no proper facilities, were shut down and the Home Office tightened immigration rules for students. Foreign students with Tier 4 visas, who were assured that they were studying at good institutions in the UK, were left in a scramble to get admitted elsewhere so that they could continue their studies and get their visas extended.
Then the TOEIC cheating scandal hit. Samia was one of the students accused of cheating and her visa extension, and thus studies, held up indefinitely. Samia insists she didn’t cheat. “Why should I? I had given my IELTS in Dhaka before I came and got a six [scores are between zero and nine] back then. Since then, my English has only improved.”
Samia’s education had kept getting stalled and this accusation was the final straw, less than a year shy of graduating from college. At the same time, her family finances weren’t in great shape. In such a situation, Samia did not tell her parents the extent of her legal situation—that her home had been raided and she interrogated, that she was unable to study indefinitely, and that she now had to regularly report to an immigration centre. That she had nowhere to live because her flatmates were scared of further Home Office raids.
“I wasn’t being able to explain my legal problems at home,” says Samia, referring to the around 60 lakh taka her father paid for her studies and living costs in the UK over eight years. Her father had sold off property to send her abroad initially. Her parents didn’t speak to her for some time, she says, and their relationship has never recovered though she now lives with them.
As she tried to handle her situation—applying for a judicial review of her case by herself, without legal support—while staying with friends or in shelters and no studies or job on hand, Samia went into severe depression. “At one point, I became suicidal,” she says.
The story of the legal fight of these students, including many other Bangladeshis, has been the subject of media coverage in the UK for some time now. Some students were deported, others eventually returned because they did not have the means to fight their case and stay on in the UK, while some still brave the fight against the UK Home Office.
Back in Bangladesh, the plight of these students is little known. Many of the students went through recruiting agencies which sent them to the UK, not knowing which college or university they would be admitted to, the quality of the institution, and little about their rights in the UK. Much like migrants, students such as Samia (and their parents) paid a steep price based on little or incorrect information of where they were being sent.
“Of course, a student should know where they’re going. When I got to London, I felt like I had been dropped in the middle of the sea and I don’t know how to swim.” Samia’s agent no longer responded when she called from the UK.
Sheikh Shariful Amin, a leading campaigner of a multinational students’ platform attempting to clear their names in the UK, similarly went to the UK through an agency. “I want to make young people coming to this country aware of fraudulent recruiters which give students false hopes of working part-time to help finance their studies,” he says. Like Samia, he came to the UK without knowing which university he was being enrolled in and had to make the best of the situation, once there.
As important, says Amin, is knowing and understanding the host country’s immigration rules and regulations and not coming with a “fantasy” of what the UK is like. In the case of students such as himself and Samia, after accusations of cheating, they were treated like illegal immigrants rather than legitimate fee-paying students who were granted visas.
The UK is one of the top education destinations for Bangladeshi and other students worldwide. IELTS and TOEFL testing centres are ubiquitous in the country and the British Council regularly hosts programmes to attract students to higher education institutions in the UK.
“Bangladeshi students pour money into the UK but the way its institutions are promoted are not reflected in the way we [students] are treated here,” says Amin. He urges students to be practical and aware of their rights.
While this happened to a small section of students, and while many young Bangladeshis now apply to UK colleges and universities with greater access to information about the quality of education available, considering the amount Bangladeshi students and guardians invest in a foreign degree, these students’ case serves as a daunting example of how vulnerable students are to visa restrictions, detention, and deportation in a foreign country.
The UK Home Office was investigated by the National Audit Office, a government watchdog, for this decision to revoke visas based on cheating allegations. In its report, it concluded that despite evidence of “cheating on a large scale”, innocent students may have been deported.
Two years ago, while her case was still pending review, Samia decided to return to Bangladesh. She still struggles with the memories of her time in the UK and the shame she felt being accused of something she insists she didn’t do. “If you asked me to talk about what I went through when I just got back, I would have said no.”
The coming home has not been smooth—she is still seen as a failure by her family, relatives and neighbours for not having completed her education abroad despite being there for so long and the amount of money her parents paid for it.
Part of the problem explaining her situation to her parents, she says, was their belief that everything in a developed country such as the UK was systematic and what happened must have been her fault. “They thought I squandered their money and have nothing to show for it.” While she initially took the legal route, challenging the UK Home Office’s decision is not easy—with many students’ cases still unresolved, five years on.
Samia now works as a translator for a short-term research project by an INGO. “No matter how skilled you are, you need a certificate to get a decent job.” This is one of several low-paying jobs she’s taken since coming back in Bangladesh and does not yet earn enough to be able to get a graduate degree. “I still hope that someday I will study again,” she says.
*The student did not want her real name used.