Remember, if you will, the following: you’re back in first year, and Freshers’ week has just passed, leaving you blissfully happy and rolling in new pals, but also with an only semi-functioning liver, not a lot of dignity and absolutely no cash. Some of the more carefree souls among us might stock up on Tesco Value canned pasta and wait for the sweet relief of Loan Day. Others will have enough willpower to trawl through Gumtree and start looking for a part-time job. And some will have to swallow their pride and phone up Mum and Dad and politely ask for more funds. What if, however, all of the above mentioned options were not available to you? No student loan, no scholarship or any funding whatsoever from your home government, no eligibility to work in the UK (yet…), and parents who barely have enough money to support you as it is. Such are the problems faced by Bulgarians and Romanians studying in the UK.

How does a student get to this scenario in the first place? All international students that have entered the UK with a Tier-4 visa and all European Union nationals have the automatic right to work for up to 20 hours per week. Nonetheless, having joined the EU later, in 2007, Bulgaria and Romania are categorised as “A2 countries” and their citizens need to obtain a special work permit in order to be employed in the UK. The so called “yellow card” is a mystical piece of paper that thousands of students try to obtain each year, and is granted by the UK Border Agency. This obscure and complicated process begins by filling out a 15-page form, collecting bank statements, a certifying letter that confirms one’s status as a student, and recently: providing evidence of a Comprehensive Sickness Insurance. Such insurance can either be obtained from a private insurance company (and will cost around £250), or by obtaining EU insurance and signing a letter in which you confirm your stay in the UK is temporary. After all of this hassle, one sends all those documents to the office in Croydon along with either a passport or an ID card.

And then you’re left waiting in limbo. Over the years, the waiting period has increased as the UKBA has been understaffed and has explained the long waiting times as an “administrative issue.” The usual waiting period is between 3 and 6 months, but in the past year students have had to wait for up to 10 months to get their documents back, all with no guarantee of obtaining a work permit. The ludicrous stories a Romanian or Bulgarian student could share with you are endless. For one thing, the UKBA is in possession of your ID or passport, thus restricting your travel. Some students have had their application returned after waiting for over 6 months because the UKBA has had their ID card for so long that it has expired. Others, even more frustratingly, can’t start work placements, without which they cannot complete their degree. Hundreds of applications have been returned and deemed unsuccessful because they do not satisfy a rule that hasn’t been clearly stated on the UKBA’s website. Students are never certain how much longer they will have to wait, as the information provided by the website is often inaccurate, and the time it takes can be so inconsistent that it’s not even worth trying to guess. The UKBA explicitly states that it cannot provide any information about the progress of one’s application. They used to have a phone line for the purpose of contacting them, and the option of making an interview appointment in their office in Croydon, after which one would get their application verified the next day. To make such an appointment, however, students had to wait for nearly 3 months and to consistently phone the office, which would put them on hold for hours or not pick up at all. Right now, the phone line is shut down, the UKBA is no longer offering the option of interview appointments, and the only way to contact them is via e-mail. This is equally fruitless, given that the reply is usually an automated one, stating that the UKBA is currently very busy and will get back to you as soon as possible.

Needless to say, this not only makes the process of obtaining a work-permit nearly impossible, but puts a huge financial burden on Bulgarian and Romanian students, who are not eligible for any student loan or scholarship, and are in no way supported by their respective governments. This situation is putting students’ educations at great risk. Some students desperately try to get around the restrictions and start working for shady agencies under the status of “self-employed.” While technically this means they are independent and do not answer to a senior employer, the reality is usually that they do not receive a fair wage or fair treatment. All of this has recently led to the mobilisation of over 3000 Romanian and Bulgarian students who have tried to raise awareness about the situation and have started petitions, contacted their home governments, members of British, Scottish and European parliament, and even their universities. While some have called the entire process an unfair discrimination and want to see all working restrictions lifted entirely, others have accepted the Accession workers’ rights and simply seek fairness through the resolution of the UKBA’s administrative issues and the reinstatement of a reasonable waiting period and ways of contacting the agency.

The process has already seen some positive change. The University of Dundee is the first university in the UK to acknowledge the hardship of Bulgarian and Romanian students and to provide any real financial assistance. Upon contacting the University of Glasgow, both the SRC and International Student Support have said that they are aware of the issue and are taking steps to address it. The International Student Advisers have already contacted the UKBA and raised the issue last term at a Student Service management meeting. Moreover, there have recently been cases of applications processed in just over a month, and the UKBA has stated that it is aiming to hire more case workers and restore the maximum 6-month waiting period. Finally, the restrictions are set to be lifted completely on Jan 1, 2014. Until then, the difficulties that Bulgarian and Romanian students will have to face still remain unclear.

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[Tzveta Dryanovska]

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