Spirituality on campus

Continuing the series on what faith means to students, Varun Anand, a 3rd year medical student from

Before I came to university I have to admit I was not very religious and did not know much about Hinduism, except that we have many religious scriptures and are not allowed to eat beef. Although we are a Hindu family, we only celebrate the major festivals like Diwali (festival of light) and Holi (festival of colours), of which I knew little about. I was more interested in the fun aspect like lighting fireworks and throwing coloured powder! However, this changed almost immediately when I joined the University of Birmingham.

At the societies fair in the first week of university, I got talking to a few committee members of the Hindu Society and then a week later I went to their first event; a ‘Meet and Greet’. It was nice to meet people of a similar background and make new friends and it was then that I became a member of the Hindu Society.

It was not until the society’s Diwali show, ‘Ujala’, that I was able to become more interested in my religion and culture. The true significance of why we celebrated it was explained with a play followed by an interactive talk. Afterwards I commended the members of the committee on such a brilliant event. They told me that I should apply to be on the sub-committee if I wanted to help out. At first I was unsure of the responsibility so early on in my university life. However, they persuaded me and by November I gained the position of PR on the society’s sub-committee.

I enjoyed being on the committee as I got to know the other members quite well and played a part in organising and promoting the Hindu Society’s annual ball, ‘Roshni’, which was a good experience. However, the highlight was when the sub-committee was left in charge to organise a Holi event. At times it was stressful but in the end it was rewarding because the event was a huge success.

In second year I got introduced to another society called Krishna Consciousness Society (KcSoc) where every Tuesday evening a group of about 20 students got together and had informal spiritual discussions. The discussions were mainly based on the Bhagavad Gita, which is an important Hindu scripture. I enjoyed KcSoc as I learnt a lot more about the basics of spirituality and aspects of Hinduism and since then have been reading related books whenever I have had time.

In my second year, the new Hindu Society committee introduced a weekly worship known as ‘aarti’. I vaguely knew the words of the prayer as I had sung it before at various festivals. What I liked about this was that I could come here once a week in this spiritual environment and forget about the hustle and bustle of university life. Sometimes there were also talks on an aspect of Hinduism or a yoga class which I really enjoyed as I invariably learnt something new.

Last year my interest in my faith and religion took up about 2 evenings a week and hence played quite a significant role in my student life. Of course the main reason why I participated was to practice Hinduism and to learn more about it, but the events were also very sociable and a nice catch-up with people I wouldn’t otherwise see in lectures.

Later on in the year I joined the committee of National Hindu Students Forum (NHSF). I felt it would be a new challenge so I applied and got a role on the PR team. I believe that my involvement with NHSF has meant that I now have more knowledge about the Hindu faith. So when I come home and we celebrate certain Hindu festivals, I am more aware of why we are doing what we are. I look forward to being part of NHSF this year and I hope to carry on going to the discussions at KcSoc as well as the weekly Hindu Society aarti. Over the past 2 years I have definitely gained a greater understanding about my religion and culture and I hope this continues throughout my student life and beyond.

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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