The trials and tribulations of UK-bound Malaysian students

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STUDENTS hoping to study in the United Kingdom (UK) this year are met with a gruelling series of challenges as a direct effect of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Malaysia is ranked fifth in the list of non-European Union countries to send students to the UK with a total of 13,835 students in a 2021 report done by Studying-in-UK.org.

UK-bound students may find themselves lost amid the chaos and easily confused by the new travel restrictions and guidelines put in place to curb infection rates.

Just two months ago, thousands of students panicked over the closure of Malaysia’s one and only UK visa administrator, VFS Global (Malaysia) Sdn Bhd, that ceased services due to the country’s high daily COVID-19 cases.

In a tweet on 14 August, then Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein announced that the centre was allowed to operate at 50% capacity under Phase 1 of the National Recovery Plan (NRP) and must remain subjected to the standard operating procedures (SOP). 

Students were left in a race to secure one of the limited appointment slots for their visas before the September 2021 intake.

However, with the centre’s mounting backlog, it quickly became evident that 50% operational capacity was not enough to ensure that all the students would be able to start their studies in time for this coming term. 

Due to increased demand and pressure (that even prompted a petition), VFS KL eventually opened up another centre in Selangor and increased their working capacity to provide appointment slots for the students who were growing anxious.

With the only hubs open for UK visa applications being in Selangor, students from all across the country were forced to cross land and sea to make it to their visa appointments, and that proved to be another difficult task for students in different states, especially from smaller towns.

Visa centres were not deemed an essential service from the beginning of the National Recovery Plan, and the reason for that is unclear.

The situation, while calmer now, did cause a moment of distress among many students. Even more so for the students who had to bear high costs to travel to Kuala Lumpur.

Grace Dagang, an affected Sarawakian student, said that “it is frustrating to think that these services cannot be provided to East Malaysians”.

“Visa centres are one thing. Another thing is the fact that, due to COVID-19 restrictions and limitations, flight frequencies have greatly reduced. This limits us in choosing a suitable visa appointment date that would fit in between two days that would have flights. This put me in a tight and costly position when I had to choose my flights. I had no choice but to book a ticket that cost RM1,500 since the only seats left were business class,” she added.

“I even had to fly back to Kuching, seven hours from my hometown, just so I could meet the three days two nights limited time frame. One may argue why not choose a later date that could be cheaper, but the thing is, some universities, specifically mine, start induction weeks and courses from 20 September, giving me very little wiggle room. If I could not be exempted from mandatory quarantine, I would not be able to start classes on time.”

While a necessity during these daunting times, the quarantine order made it more difficult for Sarawakian students to navigate their way through their pre-departure planning. Accompanied with limited flights to and from KL to Kuching, some students had to make some heart-wrenching decisions.

Another affected Sarawakian student who wishes to stay anonymous shared her gratitude and heartbreak for the sacrifices made to complete her travel preparations. 

“I took connecting flights, Mukah to Kuching and Kuching to KL. That was another headache because sometimes the flights from my hometown were delayed or cancelled, which might risk the later flight tickets being burnt as well,” she said.

Though a bit sad, she had no choice but to pack her belongings and decided to stay in Peninsular Malaysia until the time that they are expected to fly.

She has no relatives in Selangor, so she stayed in a hotel in Petaling Jaya, which made her feel guilty because her parents needed to pay for her hotel rent, but there was no other choice.

“Since I’m a family person, leaving my home made me despondent. My family gave me a rousing send-off at Mukah Airport, and that made me feel a lot better. I’m still waiting for my visa decision at this moment. I am excited but also anxious for the upcoming trip to the UK, Insha Allah. May Allah protect us from all calamities,” she added.

Saying goodbye to families was already a tearful experience pre-pandemic, and now the students may not even be able to have their families and friends around to bid them farewell at the departure gates of KLIA.

On top of the delays and obstacles, students are finding it exceptionally difficult to find accommodation around their universities this year if they had not secured a place earlier.

This is due to many students choosing to defer their studies from the 2020 term, causing an unprecedented number of new students coming in this fall.

Houses and rooms are said to be booked just within minutes after being listed online.

Hannah Leanne Lee, a student affected by the gruelling battle to find housing, said as a student that would be studying in the UK this year, she felt really stressed out looking for a place to stay.

“To have a secure place in student accommodation, students have to book their place during the previous academic year,” she added.

“The bright side is that I got to find cheaper options and connect with other students who are also desperately looking for a place to stay. This made me realise that I was not the only one struggling to find a place to stay in the UK and weirdly that was very comforting.”

For the visa application, Hannah was also very stressed out and cried a little when her agent from IDP told her that all the visa application dates were fully booked until November this year.

“I am still worried about it as the visa application will take some time which might cause a delay for me to start my studies. Overall, I am trying my best to stay positive,” she opined.

With many twists and turns and bumps on their roads to the UK, students this year are facing odds that were practically unknown to us before the pandemic.

We can only wish that the rest of their journeys will run smoothly and that they stay safe.

Hopefully the pandemic will not peak again and not take anything away from their university experiences since most universities in the UK have transitioned back to face-to-face learning after a whole year of online classes.

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