A young promising actor in India, Sushant Singh Rajput, recently committed suicide and the country has been in shock eversince. A talented boy from a small town with big dreams set off on a career different from his core qualifications. Having just begun his innings in cinema, he faced challenges, including apathy and nepotism. He slipped into depression and ended up taking his own life.
Though not related, his tragedy took me back a few years to something that happened in the UK and I wondered how many young men and women, may have been pushed to that edge at the time? Nobody referred to or spoke about their emotional well being. I am referring to the time when the bogus colleges were shut down in the UK.
I shudder to think if you, or anyone you knew, was caught up in the scam and had to suffer the consequences of first coming into the UK, then realising the fraud commited against you and then being told that instead of the actual criminals being brought to justice, you are the one who is going to be arrested, shamed and punished. I must apologise if this brings back horrible memories of that period for you, personally.
As per UK government statistics published in November 2019, 30,000 received a Tier-4 (study) visa that year. They go on to say that more than 270,000 Indian students have benefitted from studying in the UK in the last decade. Impressive as these figures are, when you translate them into how much it costs each student to live and study in this country, one wonders how long it may take them to pay off the huge debt that most of them take via education loans.
Heart-breaking accounts of students victimised by the bogus colleges scam were shared on social media and other media channels around 2010-2012. Picture the case of students from a small district in India, with modest means but big dreams to study in an international university of repute and make his/her family proud. Nothing wrong with this? They come across “agents” pitching opportunities of studying in the UK - it all looks legit - board, logo looks so real, names of universities and fancy brochures etc.
The fees, though high, isn't as high as it is directly with the university so a student keen on pursuing a successful career, is easily lured into this trap. Monies are paid and seat secured. Once they arrive in the UK, and it is time to visit the so-called “University”, they realise it is really a tiny back office in the bylane of a high street! Having lost that kind of money and not ever being able to receive a degree or training in the chosen subject area is still only the beginning of the disaster.
Many distraught students returned home, having tried to track down the fraudsters in vain. A few, who couldn't gather the courage to inform their parents carried on living in the UK, looking for odd cash-in-hand jobs to survive and to make up for the lost money. Many would have put their family assets at stake and take a huge loan in lieu.
Once the scam was exposed, a majority of these “bogus colleges” were shut down. Meanwhile, the students who came lured by these fraudsters and duped by this scam continued to live in rather distressed circumstances in the UK. A lot of negative press emerged about Indian students cheating the system to find shortcuts to live in the UK. As a result the “overstaying Indian student population” became a thing to be thrown at every argument made from Indian side to negotiate better post-study visa arrangements for students.
A few points to note here:
The UK is among the most expensive countries to live in.
As an illegal immigrant, once you appeal to the Home Office, you still had to live and survive in the UK without any government support; worse still if you are already cheated out of a large sum, as the “bogus colleges scam” victims were.
That you manage to actually survive in the UK in these circumstances implies that there is an informal economy that sustains you, somehow.
That there was a scam that cheated so many international students means that this was a serious law and order lapse on part of the UK government. Yet the price had to be paid by Indian students?
I've heard inspiring stories of immigrants who have made it big in public life but had come into the UK in difficult circumstances, gone on to do odd jobs, work as Wimpy's boy/girl and then start a business with the tiniest sums of money. A number of biopics demonstrate how there even were individuals who arrived illegally but were later given refuge and legalised. A few of these immigrants sit in high public offices, including the Parliament of this country today.
When a crisis of this nature befell innocent individuals recently, why wasn't there sympathy for their cause? Most people taking such high risks of moving to an expensive country do so with the aspiration of a better prospect. They work extremely hard and will work longer hours, if needed, to try and get ahead.
Of course, nothing justifies illegal immigration but such tragic fraudulence should have been approached with compassion. It's hard to ascertain exactly how many students were duped by these bogus colleges but there were close to a hundred such colleges that were shut down. This means there must have been at least a few hundreds, if not more, international students who came via this route and were stuck before repatriation.
One wonders now, in hindsight, could they have been offered a temporary legal right to stay in this country, giving them the opportunity to recover the losses and also enrol in legitimate universities or colleges, pursuing the degree or course they came to pursue in the first place? Rather than being pushed down a deep, dark hole that would impact their life's plans irreparably.
Lakshmi Kaul is the London-based UK Head & Representative at the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and an active Indian diaspora campaigner. In this regular Talking Point column for 'iGlobal', she will focus on issues that deserve spotlighting within the Global Indian community, referencing her personal experiences.