Migrants, Multiculture

Latin America is invisible in British universities

Paz Concha estimates that every year, educational institutions in the UK attract nearly 160,000 students from all over the world. Non-European students pay double or triple the amount of their European colleagues to attend university.


Paz Concha

Ramón Alabau


They say that the British education system is characterized by its rigor, seriousness, and its propensity to make you think. It is also characterized by the rich culture of its diverse student body, as well as the teaching techniques employed in the classroom.

The truth is that numerous people are captivated by a British education every year.

People come to the UK from all corners of the world, including Latin America.

The number of Latin Americans at University College London has tripled in the past seven years, and a total of 267 students from South America enrolled at the London School of Economics during the academic year 2011-2012.

Despite this growth, Latinos are still a minority in British universities. Many of them, including about 30 Chileans who make up the LSESU (London School of Economics Student Union) Chile Society, intend to spread the culture of countries such as Chile within academic circles.

Through these groups, they are publicising their research and knowledge to other colleagues. Their goal is to make Latin America well known amongst their peers and teachers.

The Prisma was lucky enough to speak to Paz Concha, a Chilean Postgraduate student in Britain and president of the LSESU Chile Society.

This young woman talks about the situation of Latino students in London and their views on the education crisis in Chile. She says that learning in London today will benefit her country tomorrow.

They are far from home and very open, but what is the relationship between Latin students like here in London?

When you meet a Latin American student, even if they aren’t from the same country as you, you feel a certain kind of closeness; meeting someone who speaks the same language as you is very nice. Here in London, we aren’t well known, only a few people speak Spanish and know our history. We always need to unite and make joint efforts to share our culture with others. Within the university, there is a department which deals with South American issues, but this is quite a new thing.

What can Latin American students contribute to Britain?

We tend to be the adults in the class, and have more professional experience than our classmates, so we are in a privileged position. We enrich debates and make great contributions based on our cultural experiences. Moreover, we can visualise issues that often go unnoticed by our professors. Latin America’s history is often overlooked. When talking about colonialism, development or underdevelopment, things are often from the English perspective, i.e. the cases of Africa and Asia. We offer a different perspective, given our North-South relationship.

It is said that racism is on the rise in British society. What relationship do Latin American students have with British students?

The student body within the university is so vastly diverse that it seems strange to talk about incidents of racism. In fact, the British students are the minority, as 70% of the students are internationally based. There’s a multicultural environment within the university bubble, where everyone’s ideas are heard and there is no room for discrimination.

Arriving from a South America country is a huge step. What do you have to consider before studying in the UK?

English is the first barrier, but it’s not the hardest. We come here with a good level of English, since it’s a compulsory subject at school. Each year, about 400 Chileans go to England to study. Scholarships help us get here; it would be impossible otherwise. However, the financial help we receive for our postgraduates is very fair, and allows us to live decently.

The system is also very positive. You don’t come just to listen to lectures; your contributions matter. You have to go to lessons having read the material, and should be prepared to discuss it with your classmates.

What do Latin America students coming to Great Britain need?

Before coming to Britain it is a good idea to contact people for advice about renting and the best places to live. You’ll have to share, the pound is quite an expensive currency and your budget will be limited. One of our demands is that the financial support we receive fits the standards of living in the host country. Some colleagues in Australia are suffering. The grants haven’t been adjusted in the past five years, and yet the standard of living has increased by 20%.

When you get to university, everything goes really quickly and there’s not enough time to adapt. The classes are very dynamic, so as I like to say: “get on board or get out of the way.” Yes, there is a lot of support and there are courses that help you to adapt quickly. Generally, we don’t have any problems. There’s even a therapist on hand if you become emotionally distressed.

Demonstrations in Chile demanding a quality, universal education, as well as clashes between students and the police have been making headlines around the world. What’s it like living in the UK while these events are happening?

We all see things going on at home from a new, foreign perspective. Here, we think about things and try to provide solutions. The news hits us harder. This isn’t a new problem. It all began with the first privatizations. The government doesn’t take education into account, so it is restrictive and suffering a crisis of quality. It has been left in the hands of private companies. I used to work in a private school in Chile, and I had students coming in from public schools which clearly showed the poverty of knowledge they were being dragged into. Many students also only leave with just enough marks to get into university. Many have to apply for bank loans to finance their studies, leaving them in debt for years after. It’s unfair, because people then aren’t free to study what they want.

What damage is the remarkable economic growth, classist education and domination of the private sector doing to Chile?

Other Latin American countries are taking lessons from us when it comes to the economy, but the inequalities cannot stay the same. The state has an historical debt towards equal opportunities, not only in terms of access to better wages, but also in terms of becoming an entrepreneur and creating your own opportunities.

Investing more in education, offering more scholarships, providing access, focussing on quality… That has to be the way forward. Education is the engine of the country, without it, there is no development. Another problem is that when we return to Chile, we have to work to repay the financial support we were given, but the work doesn’t have to be relevant to what you were studying; you could work in an ice cream shop. The country loses its opportunity to take advantage of us; we’ve been extensively trained.

How has the UK dealt with immigration laws?

We have agreed on student visas with the UK. This allows us to work up to 20 hours a week without receiving state support. We are allowed to stay here for four months to complete our studies under this scheme, although this varies on a case to case basis. What hurts the most is that they have closed calls on two year visas, which allow for further study. Now, the only way to prolong your visa is if a company sponsors you. Students from other countries don’t have the same facilities and so don’t get a permanent visa.

Does letting these students go hurt the UK?

Of course. I think they are letting go of quite a significant human capital. Those coming to London bring diversity and experience. But given the economic crisis that the UK is currently experiencing, they prefer us to leave.

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(Translated by Marie-Thérèse Slorach – Email: marietherese.slorach@gmail.com)

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