The Lived Experiences of African International Students in the United Kingdom

The Lived Experiences of African International Students in the United Kingdom: Reactions to the Law through the Lens of Precarity and Consciousness

By James Marson, Mohammed Dirisu and Katy Ferris

The United Kingdom is largely a welcoming place for international students. The country sees the benefit of international visitors engaging with various communities, enriching society and contributing culturally, fraternally and economically through their various interactions. The benefits to students are not only limited to study. International students often act as tourists, advance their language skills, develop personally and professionally during their stay, and they are encouraged to attend higher education institutions in the United Kingdom by their own institutions and representatives from universities. Yet, of course, there are the financial costs for international students to consider when deciding to study in the United Kingdom, and one way they deal with this is by taking up work during their studies. This is where our book presents the lived experiences of two groups of student-migrants in different parts of the United Kingdom.

To set the scene, it is important to remember that international students are officially designated migrants and are consequently subject to a suite of migration control in the United Kingdom. Currently, international students are restricted to a maximum of 20 hours of employment per week during term-time, and they are prevented from working as independent contractors or on a self-employed basis. Further, whilst our empirical research was being conducted, international students were required to leave the United Kingdom within four months of the conclusion of their (12-month and longer) studies. Thus, international students often held the view that the United Kingdom wanted them to come to the country to spend money on living and paying (higher than home students’) fees for their courses, yet would then restrict their opportunities for gainful employment whilst here and require them to leave almost as soon as they had graduated. Despite the interest that international students and their interactions in employment pose, there has been relatively little empirical research into their experiences, especially the documenting of their lived experiences whilst working in the United Kingdom.

Our findings confirm that international students encounter significant difficulties in navigating the UK labour market and are forced to take up jobs that are deemed precarious, low status and low paid. More so, their employment context is pre-set by barriers brought on by market forces and migration structures that start to take effect before they arrive in the United Kingdom, and whilst resident, they are effectively directed towards insecure employment forms. They resort to finding occupations through employment agencies due to the inherent difficulties they encounter navigating the labour market unaided as new entrants and as recent, transitory migrants who often lack the requisite socio-cultural understanding, time and resources to be fully independent job seekers. 

Their transactional view of employment, the student-migrants’ need to work and their employment in precarious settings led our investigation into ‘semi-legality’. This occurs where student-migrants are legally resident but working in contexts that breach the employment restrictions affixed to their migration status. As an analytical tool, the concept marks a middle ground between outrightly illegal/unauthorised activities, and utterly legal/compliant student-migrant labour. The students are operating legally in the sense that they do possess the right to gainful employment whilst studying, but illegally as they defy the conditions imposed on the manner in which they are entitled to exercise this right. We discovered a number of ploys towards enacting and concealing semi-legality in the labour market being adopted, these correlating within each study location and, more so, implicating the extents of the violations of the student-migration rules. For instance, with one group of student-migrants, we typically found them operating in a nomadic fashion, alternating between various work contexts and employers so to conceal employment in excess of the mandated 20-hour weekly work limits. This we considered as one strike of semi-legality. Meanwhile in a second group, the student-migrants enacted their semi-legality by contracting for work through their personal limited companies which they incorporated for this express purpose. Further, as this activity was undertaken in connivance with their respective employers, all whilst working more than the authorized limits, it resulted in action we considered as two strikes of semi-legality

In pursuit of the connections between these distinct renditions of semi-legality in terms of precarity, we found disparities between both groups. The student-migrants in the first group mentioned above were more given to working in insecure employment, both in terms of job tenure and wages, but largely faring better than those in the second group who tended to be more insecure in their everyday lives outside of work, yet simultaneously enjoying more stable, favourable employment relationships with respect to tenure and pay. 

A particularly interesting finding is that indulging in semi-legal employment effectively impedes the individuals’ claims-making prospects. Student-migrants within both groups had little trouble naming incidents at work as problematic and ascribing blame to the party deemed responsible. However, students in the first group tended to stop any formal action following their communicating an incident to those deemed responsible, rather choosing to discontinue the employment relationship than pursue a remedy in law. We uncovered various factors which led to this decision including their lingering suspicion of outsiders, distrust of employers who could potentially weaponize this information against them, the fleeting relationship they maintained with said employers, to whom they ordinarily would communicate any grievances, the fear of detection from state authority bodies, and a heightened sense of independence. On the contrary, the student-migrants in the second group, perhaps due to the co-complicity of employers, were emboldened to communicate grievances and press for redress as the employers’ actions effectively neutralized the moral terrain. However, in instances where the grievance went unresolved following these deliberations, the student-migrants rarely moved to formally invoke a resolution under the law. In large part it seemed that they were similarly discouraged by the complications that could flow from this line of action due to their semi-legal employment endeavours. Members of this group tended to continue with the employment relationship, despite ills suffered, due to the socioeconomic benefits this brings, and the distinctiveness of their semi-legal design which makes it arduous to find alternative employment, at least in respect of the alternatives being commensurate in value. 

A final, noteworthy comment from our research is the reactions by the student-migrants to their employment circumstances. This was manifested in how they used social networks and friendships to circumvent and bend immigration and employment rules, both before deciding on choosing the United Kingdom as a destination for further study and once they arrived here, and could justify these to themselves and to us as a result of misinformation being presented to them at recruitment fairs in their home country. The student-migrants’ lived experiences is a genuinely fascinating insight into migration and employment in the United Kingdom and will help, we feel, all stakeholders to reflect on whether these rules as currently enacted are fit for purpose.