Mary* always knew she wanted to be a doctor. “When I was in school, I had everything planned out,” said the 20-year-old, who moved to the UK from Nigeria aged five.
But after months of intense revision for her A Levels, the top-grade student discovered that her immigration status meant she was effectively barred from university.
Despite having lived in the UK for the vast majority of her life, Mary was told she would not be considered a home student because she had only been granted “limited leave to remain” in the UK the year before.
As a result, she would not only have to pay international student fees, often more than double the £9,250 British students are charged, but she would not be eligible for a loan - the only way she could afford university.
Discovering the news the day before her A Level chemistry exam, she simply “packed up and went to bed”.
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“It was the weight of the disappointment – I had everything planned. I didn’t want to speak to anyone about it – I don’t even speak to people about it now,” she said. “I always felt British growing up.”
It was the weight of the disappointment - I had everything planned... I always felt British growing up."
For young people brought to this country as children, it does not matter if every day of their education was spent in UK schools. Unless they have had limited leave to remain in the UK for three years before starting university, they are not considered ‘home’ students - a fact school-leavers often do not realise.
For many, the resulting financial burden is an insurmountable barrier to their dreams of university.
And in a double blow for ambitious young migrants, securing limited leave to remain is also a huge expense, with many families unable to afford the escalating Home Office fees.
It currently costs £2,033 to apply for this kind of visa, including the £400-a-year immigration health surcharge. The application must be renewed every two-and-a-half years over a 10 year period before a claimant can make a bid for unlimited leave to stay in the UK.
Labour MP David Lammy - who has been at the forefront of the Windrush Generation debate - said it was “inhumane and wrong to deny young people the opportunity to educate themselves and achieve their dreams.
“Not only is it inhumane but it is also a false economy – preventing these young people from getting the education that is their right hurts our economy at a time when we have serious skills gaps and a productivity crisis”.
Meanwhile, shadow home secretary Diane Abbott said it was an example of “Theresa May’s hostile environment policy seeping into almost every aspect of life”.
“Some young people who have been here most of their lives and here perfectly legally are being treated as if they are overseas students,” she said. “This is simply unjust.”
Having waited two years to finally be recognised as a home student, Mary will be starting a chemistry degree at Warwick University in September. But she said the pressure of applying for the right documentation cannot be underestimated.
“You think you can just save up that money,” she says. “But there’s four of us – there’s me, my brother, my sister and my mum and you still have your living costs.
“It means that every time my friends ask me out, I have to turn them down. I’m thinking: ‘That money could be used for something else.’
“I just went through a renewal last year,” she continued. “It takes so much time and we didn’t have enough money left over for lawyers, so me and my mum had to fill out two 60-page forms.
“It is so stressful – they can throw your application out if you make a mistake. That means a break in your residency and if you have a break in your residency, you basically have to start all over again.”
Chrisann Jarrett, who came to the UK from Jamaica aged eight, had a similar experience to Mary. Without the necessary three years of leave under her belt, she was only able to study law at university thanks to a scholarship.
“Growing up, I didn’t identify as a migrant – I just saw me as me, just the same as my peers,” she said. “But [applying for university] was embarrassing for me. I started to identify as someone who was an outsider.”
The experience made her so angry, it prompted to found the campaign group Let Us Learn, to help others navigate the often stressful and alienating process.
“The immigration system is out of control,” she said. “If care is not taken… we could be the next Windrush Generation scandal.”
The immigration system is out of control. If care is not taken... we could be the next Windrush Generation scandal."
Elizabeth Durosinmi-Etti, who arrived in the UK from Nigeria aged 11, has been waiting five years to realise her ambition of studying psychology at the University of West London.
Still classed as an undocumented immigrant when she applied for university while her family saved for visa costs, the 23-year old said she “didn’t realise the impact it would have on me”.
“I thought that as long as I got the place at university, there would be some way for me to still go [as a home student],” she explained in an emotional phone interview.
“Further education has always been a big thing in my family. My mum wants me to get a degree and a job which will make me financially stable.”
But with the psychology course costing £12,000 per year** for international students, not including the cost of living, she was forced to defer her place twice while her family’s attempts to secure her leave to remain were repeatedly rejected.
Eventually, she told the university: “Give my place to someone else”.
“The situation is so daunting, you don’t even realise how much of an effect it has on you,” she explained. “The system failed me and a lot of young people like me. And it’s not getting any better – it’s getting worse.”
After five years, now finally granted limited leave to remain,Elizabeth is more determined than ever to study at university and plans to become a child psychologist for young migrants. ”I want to be able to give other young people like myself someone to talk to who has actually been through the system and understands it,” she said.
A spokesperson for the Home Office said the visa fees “reduce the burden on taxpayers by making sure that the Border Immigration and Citizenship System is funded by those who benefit from it”.
“When setting the fees we consider the cost of processing the application, and also the wider cost of running the immigration system,” the statement said, adding the government keeps fee levels “under regular review”.
“We provide exceptions to application fees to protect the most vulnerable, such as victims of domestic abuse and children who are in the care of a local authority, and a fee waiver policy is in place for those making a human rights application, to prevent destitution.”
A Department for Education spokesperson added: “We want anyone with the talent and potential to have the opportunity to access and succeed in higher education.
“People do not have to register as a British citizen in order to apply for student support, students can access finance if they have lived here for a certain period of time.”