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Iranian students in the UK: Caught between two worlds - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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File photo of Iranian students relaxing in Tehran. (AFP/Behrouz Mehri)

File photo of Iranian students relaxing in Tehran. (AFP/Behrouz Mehri)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Iranian students in Britain, like any other foreign students, face a number of problems, mostly revolving about being away from home and family. Iranian students in Britain face an added challenge, however, and it revolves very much around where they come from.

Iranian youth expend immense effort to go to university and excel academically. In general, holding a university degree in Iran is a golden ticket to a better job, and it helps to improve an individual’s social and cultural status.

Despite the great efforts made by Iranian universities to attract students, Iranian resources in this field remain weak. Therefore, many Iranian youth choose to leave Iran in order to study abroad, obtaining a first-rate education while also learning a new language and discovering a new culture.

Britain is one of the main destinations for Iranian students. The United Kingdom is known for its universities, which are not just among the oldest in the world, but also the most prestigious. A number of British universities can be found among the world’s highest-ranking universities, including Oxford and Cambridge. In addition to this, the chance to learn the English language is also a major draw, encouraging many students from Iran and other parts of the world to flock to Britain for education.

However, Iranian students face problems in Britain that their foreign counterparts do not encounter. Due to the stringent economic sanctions facing Iran and its foreign currency market, Iranian credit cards cannot be used abroad. This means that Iranians travelling abroad have no choice but to rely on cash or travelers’ checks. In addition to that, many Iranian students have reported problems in opening bank accounts in Britain.

Baran, an Iranian student studying in London, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “When I came to Britain, I brought with me about GBP 5,000 [USD 8,000], and because I did not have a bank account, I was forced to carry this money on myself all the time, particularly as I was sharing a house with other students.”

Baran added: “Despite the fact that British banks can open bank accounts for Iranians who hold a student or work visa, many of them refuse to do so when they see the Iranian passport. Finally, one of the banks opened a bank account for me after checking that my name was not on the blacklist.”

Mohamed, an Iranian student studying aerospace engineering, spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat about the issue of money transfers. He said: “Since we cannot bring money from Iran to Britain through banks and other legal avenues, we are forced to deal with brokers who fix the exchange rate. These brokers normally charge a higher rate than the exchange rate on the Iranian black market.”

Since the closure of the British embassy in Tehran, which was quickly followed by the closure of the Iranian embassy in London, the problems for Iranians in general, and Iranian students in particular, have multiplied.

Amir, who is studying for his master’s degree in England, said: “The embassy was like a home to us Iranians. When it closed, we became homeless, in exile.”

“I needed to travel to a science conference in the Netherlands but I needed one of my documents to be stamped, however, because the embassy was closed, I was unable to go on this trip,” he added.

Commenting on the same issue, Miryam, an Iranian radiology student, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “My passport was about to expire when the embassy closed, and I was in the middle of exams. I had no choice but to resort to the Iranian embassies in Ireland and France . . . and this caused me many problems.”

Another problem faced by Iranian students is the fluctuation of the currency market and the changing of the currency value, which causes many problems for Iranian students abroad.

Sina, a student who lives in London, said: “Studying in this country is very difficult. Although we only have lectures two days a week, we have to study and research all week. Therefore, most students—despite the fact that they can legally work part-time for 20 hours a week—are unable to work, and we are forced to rely on help from our families.”

“The current exchange rate is making my life very difficult, and I can only just cover my basic needs,” she added.

Another student, Sara, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “Everybody knows studying in Britain is very difficult, and you could say it is like working full time. However, considering the exchange rate in Iran, I, and many of my friends, are forced to work on weekends.”

Nada, another Iranian student, said: “I am in my third year of university, and the university fees are GBP 10,000 [USD 16,000] a year and I pay the fees at the start of year. This year, I paid the fees when the pound was worth 5,050 toman,” she said, referring to an Iranian unit of currency worth 10 rials.

“Therefore, the cost of living changed from less than 20 million toman to 50 million toman,” she said.

Nada added: “This is only the course fees. I have to add my personal expenses too. I rent a small room for GBP 460, and of course, I work part time, but my wages do not cover food and clothes expenses.”

Another student who receives money from his family on a monthly basis told Asharq Al-Awsat: “With the fluctuating exchange market, my father’s business has deteriorated, so, I have to stop my studies and go back to Iran, even though I am only in my second year of university.”

The director of a company in Iran which find courses for students looking to study abroad told Asharq Al-Awsat: “This year, many students paid fees, and after receiving their acceptances from universities, they paid the visa fees and half the university fees and traveled. However, due to the current circumstances, around 40 percent of them have been forced to return, which means they have lost all the money they paid.”