At last, a boycott worth supporting

The UK University and College Union’s refusal to snoop on foreign students in Britain should be welcomed.

Nathalie Rothschild

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Topics Politics

In recent years, the UK University and College Union’s (UCU) annual conferences have sparked rows and news headlines for their recurring motions on academic boycotts of Israel.

Two years ago, when the UCU voted to support a call by Palestinian trade unions for a boycott of Israeli academe – despite similar calls having been repeatedly rejected in the past – I argued on spiked that ‘the only thing we should boycott is boycotts’ (1). The frequent demands for a halt to engagement with Israeli academics pose a serious threat to academic freedom and the open exchange of ideas. They might make certain British academics feel radical, but ultimately they are anathema to the ideals of free speech and boundless inquiry, which ought to be the mainstay of any university worth its name.

Though there were, unfortunately, renewed calls for a boycott of Israeli academics at last week’s UCU conference in Bournemouth, it was reassuring to learn that delegates also voted to support students and academic staff in Britain whose liberties are being threatened by new, toughened-up immigration rules. UCU members opposed the UK government’s new visa rules for international students, pledging to boycott measures that would, they said, turn university staff into ‘immigration snoopers’ (2).

This is one boycott worth backing – a refusal to comply with curtailing the freedom of some members of British schools and colleges.

The UCU academics warned against the likely pernicious effects that the new immigration rules for students from non-European Union states will have. Students make up the fourth tier of the five-tier points-based immigration system for migrant students and workers, which was launched last year. The new rules brought in through the points system do not only involve bureaucratic nightmares for student visa applicants and academic institutions wishing to enrol overseas students; they also pose a serious threat to the freedom of movement for people around the world.

The rules risk demonising foreign students in Britain and poisoning relations between academics and their students. In the long term, the toughened-up rules will likely undermine the reputation of British academia as a dynamic international research arena.

Educational institutions are now required to obtain a licence to accept international students. They must act as sponsors for the overseas students enrolled on their campus. Sponsors must vouch for the student’s abilities and has various reporting duties throughout the student’s stay in the UK. Universities must keep a copy of overseas students’ passports and report them to the authorities if they fail to enrol, consistently miss lectures or drop out. They must also raise concerns if students are suspected of being involved in terrorism. In other words, academics are effectively being asked to spy on ‘dodgy foreigners’ on behalf of the government.

Delegates at the UCU conference said they did not want to become a branch of the UK Border Agency and rightly pointed out that the new rules will harm relations between academic staff and students from outside the EU, forcing universities to discriminate against foreigners. Sally Hunt, general secretary of the UCU, said: ‘UCU members are educators not border guards.’ (3)

A Home Office spokesman responded that ‘educational institutions have a duty of care to all their students and checking that they are attending and making progress in their studies is part of that responsibility’ (4). Educators do indeed have a responsibility to educate, but the relationship between academic institutions and their students should be negotiated between the individuals concerned. Whether or not college kids skip class, keep up with their course work or decide to switch colleges is none of the government’s business.

It is reassuring that academics react defiantly against demands from on high that they should discriminate against foreign students and treat them with suspicion. When the government recently suggested that universities should take responsibility for monitoring extremist groups and individuals on campus, again many academics reacted angrily.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much for some to turn their back on foreign students. When it emerged that 10 of 12 people arrested in April on suspicion of plotting terrorist attacks in the north west of England were Pakistani students, the government’s academic spying proposal started to be looked on more favourably by some, and there were widespread calls to clamp down on ‘bogus visa applications’. A professor of war studies at the prestigious King’s College London wrote in The Times (London) that accepting 42,000 students from Pakistan in four years ‘may be too many for anyone to check properly’. Though he has many ‘valued Pakistani students’, he said that, in light of the arrests of the terror suspects, greater restrictions and reduced numbers might be necessary (5).

Last month, as part of an investigation by The Times into ‘bogus international colleges’, it was revealed that eight of the 12 terrorism suspects were admitted to one college that had only three classrooms and three teachers for its 1,797 students, a majority of them Pakistani. The Times’ revelations of some colleges’ fiddling with enrollment figures prompted a parliamentary investigation (6).

Yet tighter visa rules to stop ‘bogus colleges’ have already caused problems for legitimate schools and colleges wishing to attract overseas students (7). They face a tougher inspection and accreditation process and the overseas students who do get admitted also face greater controls before and during their stay in the UK. Considering that the Home Office announced just two years ago that international students boost the British economy by £8billion a year, shutting the door on more and more foreign students seems a particularly ungrateful response (8).

It is true that student visas offer a potential route into Britain for non-EU nationals who have few other legal ways of coming here. But despite certain nightmarish visions presented in the media – of thousands of potential suicide bombers pretending to receive an education at sham colleges while planning the destruction of Western civilisation – it really is not that easy to fulfil the many conditions and entry-clearance checks tied to the fourth tier.

Under the new rules, non-EU nationals wishing to obtain a UK student visa must comply with a string of requirements. For example, they must prove that they have already been offered a place at an educational institution, which must, as mentioned, be willing to act as their sponsor. A migrant student wishing to change educational institutions or to obtain a visa extension is required to lodge a further immigration application. It costs between £357 and £565 to apply for a student visa and to obtain the required biometric immigration document. (Both foreign academic staff and students are now required to carry biometric ID cards.) Student visa applicants must also prove that they have enough money to cover course fees for their first year in Britain and living costs for up to nine months.

Tightening restrictions on the arrival of foreign students in Britain and submitting those who do make it here to unfair rules and surveillance will do nothing to stop terrorism. Such measures will, however, lead to more inhumane immigration policies that deny educational opportunities to people around the world. The UCU delegates are to be congratulated for refusing to become de facto immigration officials and anti-terror guards. Their defence of the liberties of students and their insistence that their role is to educate, not police, students is laudable. Now, if only they would recognise that academic boycotts represent an insidious assault on freedom, too.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

(1) See Who’s afraid of Israeli academics?, by Nathalie Rothschild

(2) Academics boycott visa ‘snooping’, BBC News, 29 May 2009

(3) Academics boycott visa ‘snooping’, BBC News, 29 May 2009

(4) Academics boycott visa ‘snooping’, BBC News, 29 May 2009

(5) 42,000 in four years: it’s too many to check, The Times (London), 11 April 2009

(6) Investigation of colleges by The Times prompts parliamentary inquiry, The Times (London), 23 May 2009

(7) See, for example, Visa warning from private schools, BBC News, 2 June 2009

(8) Overseas students boost UK economy by £8bn a year, The Independent, 16 November 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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