University lecturers must remain educators, not border guards

Long arm of the law reaches onto campus. Anna Gowthorpe/PA Archive

The increasingly stringent control of student migration by the Home Office is damaging both the integrity of our relationships as teachers with students and the future of our universities. It was for this reason that 160 academics signed a letter published in The Guardian against the ways in which this crackdown corrodes relationships of trust that are essential to learning.

After the publication of the letter, Dr Vassiliki Kolocotroni – one of the signatories – received this email from a Glasgow University student:

Dear Dr Kolocotroni,

I don’t take your course, so I’ve never had the pleasure of being in your lectures. However, I saw your name undersigned on a letter that appeared in the Guardian yesterday regarding immigration checks on non-EU students.

My girlfriend is an undergraduate student from the United States studying here at Glasgow, the constant checks of her immigration status along with the souring of opinion on immigrants displayed in the national media have often made her feel like a criminal before she has done anything wrong.

The knowledge that some of the academics here have felt strongly enough to protest this to a national newspaper is sure to make her feel a little less persecuted and for that I would like to thank you personally.

As British universities become increasingly globalised and seek new international markets for undergraduate and postgraduate students, those same students are subject to stricter forms of surveillance and control. Speaking in September 2010, Damian Green, then immigration minister in the Conservative/ Liberal Democrat coalition government, justified immigration controls by saying that student visas had risen from 186,000 in 2004 to 307,000 in 2009. He claimed that one in five students remain after their viva and that only half of the students study degree courses.

Students have become the latest object of fear and immigration panic. New phrases have emerged within anti-immigrant discourse like “bogus students” who are accused of using higher learning illegitimately to gain visas and “backstreet colleges” who it is claimed are selling immigration and not education. This has ignored the large sum of money international students contribute to the education sector.

In 2009, Universities UK found that gross earning from the higher education sector was some £53 billion. The personal contribution overseas students make through their off campus spending was estimated at £2.3 billion.

In addition, overseas non-university students who have legally extended their visas are working in the health and social care industry where there are labour shortages.

Classrooms not checkpoints

There is a paradox at the heart of this debate. In a globalised world, universities become what Bill Readings calls “post-historical”. They are not any longer the custodians of the national past or domestic culture, but rather focused on how they measure up against global rivals in the pursuit of “excellence” and “world-class status”.

Additionally, UK universities are increasingly seeking new international markets for the recruitment of undergraduate and postgraduate students. At the same time that universities are widening their horizons, the mobility of academics and students is subjected to stricter surveillance and limitation.

As the new Immigration Bill moves through the House of Lords, there is also something else going on here that is important to speak out against.

It is not simply that young people are more mobile than at any point human history. Border control is moving into the heart of our social and professional life. Healthcare officials are required to check the immigration status of their potential patients. Lecturers and universities are also being asked to share attendance information of international students with the Home Office.

The central principle at the heart of Home Office policy and what is referred to as the Points Based System is that in the words of the UK Border Agency, “those who benefit from immigration must play their part in controlling it”. This implicates a much wider range of people into the techniques of surveillance and regulation. As a result, a lecturer’s class register becomes a checkpoint.

What universities rightly fear is losing their “trusted status” with regard to applying for student and staff visas. This is a very serious matter that impacts not just on a university’s ability to recruit international students, but ultimately its financial solvency. But what will the long-term price be? International students paying large amounts of money to study in Britain are being treated like criminals.

Time to speak out

Anti-immigrant rhetoric and practices make international students into suspects spreading fear, mistrust and anxiety within our classrooms and lecture halls.

Going to university is often a defining time of any student’s life. During those years they learn more than academic knowledge, they also learn a sense of place in the world and where they stand within it. How will this generation of young, talented people studying in Britain from all over the world look back in 20 or 30 years on the suspicious way they have been treated? What long term effects will current policy have on their sense of the value of British higher education?

What is at stake is much more than the self-interested way politicians use anti-immigrant rhetorical for electoral gain. Rather, what is being damaged is the movement of imagination, the value of the classroom as a space for cosmopolitan dialogue and the ethos of university education itself. That is why, along with individual academics, Universities UK – “the definitive voice” of an “autonomous university sector” – as their mission statement puts it, must speak out now against the folly of government policy.

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