Voices Unheard: Women, Education, & the Battle Against United Kingdom’s New Migration Policy

Illustration by Zainab Iliyasu for Diaspora Africa

On May 23, 2023, the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister, Rishi Sunaik, declared that legal migration to the UK is excessively high, prompting consideration for reducing the numbers effective from January 2024.

In 2019, the migration numbers were recorded at 226,000, soaring to over 500,000 by June 2022, primarily driven by individuals coming from outside Europe and approximately 270,000 are students.

Under the new policy, postgraduate students on non-research courses won’t be allowed to bring family members or dependents during their course of study in the UK.

Statistics have shown that in 2022, 135,788 visas were granted to dependents, up from 54,486 in 2021 and over seven times the 19,139 in 2020.

While the new policy may help the UK government in reducing the numbers, Peppy Chidinma Akaniro believes the policy disproportionately affects foreign female students.

In September 2022, Akaniro arrived at Cambridge, UK, alongside her family to pursue a postgraduate degree in Public Policy. If she had waited a year longer, she would have found herself in a difficult situation of choosing between studying in the UK or staying with her family back in Nigeria due to the new UK immigration policy.

“For me, that would have meant leaving my infant, who was still breastfeeding at the time. It also saddens me that the UK is erecting such barriers, especially for women pursuing education,” Akaniro wrote in a post on her Facebook page.

Khadijah, a graduate of Accounting from the Ahmadu Bello University Zaria, had through the years nurtured a passion for numbers.

Recently, Khadijah was notified about her selection for a scholarship that would take her to a prestigious UK university, where she hopes to embark on her postgraduate studies in International Accounting and Finance.

This was another beautiful beginning for Khadijah who hailed from Bida in Central Nigeria’s Niger State. “I was very excited about the notification. I was just smiling because it will be my first time traveling overseas and getting to fulfill my dream,” she told Diaspora Africa.

Khadija is not alone. Aisha is also one of the numerous women who would be significantly affected by this new policy.

In 2018, Aisha graduated from the Department of Business Administration at the Bayero University Kano, and in some weeks, she would be on the route to a university in the UK, for her postgraduate studies in Finance and Investment.

“I was happy when I received the email about my admission to study in the UK. Education has always been a priority in my family even as a girl child,” Aisha said.

While Khadijah and Aisha were still jubilating these achievements alongside their loved ones, the new immigration policy brought it to a halt. Both women live together with their husbands and children in Nigeria and leaving them all behind seems unbearable since the policy stipulates that foreign postgraduate students coming to the UK are not permitted to bring their dependents with them during their studies.

“I’m doing all these for my family; education and everything. I have a little daughter and it’s difficult to go and leave her. At least, I also need someone close to me who can help me with some stuff at home. It’s even more painful to go and settle elsewhere alone while knowing that you left your loved ones at home,” Khadijah stressed.

For 31-year-old Aisha, the policy is not a welcome idea and she highlighted that when policies are to be implemented, it’s good to look out for possible gaps left out, particularly if it’s not inclusive and tends to affect a certain gender or group of people.

“I feel this policy is hard on us as women. We should be the ones to suffer it the most. They should at least consider the situation where women will find themselves moving into a new place and without dependents,” Aisha added.

Despite the challenges, universities in the UK are ranked among the best in the world and that is why the UK is also regarded as the second country in the world with the highest number of international students. As of 2022, data from the Higher Education Student Data shows that among the 679,970 international students in the UK, 338,790 are enrolled for postgraduate studies, 221,040 are enrolled for undergraduate studies, and they all hailed from countries outside Europe.

The data further highlighted that out of the 68,320 international students from Africa who enrolled for higher education studies in the UK, 44,195 are from Nigeria and it sits as the third country with the most international students in the UK after China and India. Also, there are 103,495 female students from non-UK countries that have gained a postgraduate degree in the UK in the 2021/2022 academic year, where women like Akaniro were among.

Even now, Magdalene* is among the foreign undergraduate students who cannot bring their family members to the UK during their course of study.

Magdalene* is a Nigerian student who is pursuing a degree in Public Health at the University of London and is dissatisfied about the situation. But she remains resilient and believes that everything will come to pass.

When you know that you have a family member or any loved one here, it frees you from the stress of homesickness and gives you the encouragement to make good grades in school,” Magdalene* explained. 

There are moments when Magdalene* would like to share her academic struggles with someone but then she is dreading opening it up to mere strangers. “As me being a woman and also having to live alone, makes the whole situation saddening,” she voiced out.

Beyond Khadijah and Aisha, women from Africa and the Middle East may forfeit these academic opportunities due to the policy. However, it still raises concerns about the future of inclusive education for women.

A survey from FindAUniversity which was carried out by 869 prospective international masters’ students in March and April, indicates that prospective female students are more likely to be deterred by the removal of dependent visas. This even makes some experts feel that the percentage of prospective female international students coming to the UK for studies will drop if their dependents cannot join them.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute earlier expressed his concerns on the Twitter (X) social media platform about the situation and it has gathered lots of engagement. 

“There’s a gender angle to the new announcement on international students, which is likely to get missed. A large majority of the international students who bring dependents to the UK are women,” Hillman captured in his tweet.

Dr. Rebecca, an immigration expert and advocate for gender inclusion, calls for a reconsideration of the policy.

“Denying foreign postgraduate female students the opportunity to bring dependents during their studies is not a good step. This policy not only restricts the academic pursuits of these women but also makes room for gender disparities in education,” she said. “The UK government should reconsider this policy and prioritise inclusive measures that support women in their academic journeys.”

Dr. Rebecca also shared that recognising the positive impact of family support on a woman’s academic and professional success is paramount. “A more inclusive approach to this policy could not only attract diverse talent but also position the UK as a global leader in promoting gender equality in education,” she added.

Today, Akaniro is running the #YestoFamily advocacy movement where she engages with student parents, government officials, and even media organisations like the BBC and Vanguard, all in her efforts to highlight the importance of allowing international students and African migrants to live comfortably in places like the UK, alongside their families or dependants. It’s a movement that she hopes will ignite a positive change.

Beyond the movement, Akaniro still continues to lend her voice in calling upon the UK policymakers to reevaluate this stance. “Education and family shouldn’t be mutually exclusive,” she said.

While aspiring scholars like Khadijah and Aisha are still awaiting to see if some of the conditions enlisted in the policy will be lifted to enable them to cross to the UK with their dependents while also having the chance to fulfill their dreams.

Writer: Yahuza Bawage
Editors: Chimee Adioha, Amaka Obioji
Illustration: Zainab Iliyasu

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