‘Professors should not be police informants’

Valerie Hartwich spoke to the angry academics who are taking a stand against stringent new visa rules for foreigners wishing to study in Britain.

Valerie Hartwich

Topics Politics

Christmas marks the end of the first university semester, but in Britain this academic year was unlike any others. For the first time, overseas students and staff were subjected to the lengthier, costlier and more complex application processes brought in under the Points-Based System for immigrants (PBS), which will supposedly protect Britain both from immigrant terrorists and social services abusers.

Besides having to fill in longer forms and attach numerous pieces of documentation, applicants for student visas from non-EU member countries must prove that they are able to cover their fees and hold additional savings of up to £7,200 (for a one-year Masters degree). Once overseas students arrive in Britain, the new system requires higher education institutions to monitor their attendance. Students failing to attend 10 ‘interactions’ (lectures, seminars, appointments with tutors, etc) or who ‘behave suspiciously’ must be reported to the UK Border Agency (UKBA). Visiting lecturers and external examiners are also under a watchful eye, and proof of their identity must be photocopied and filed by administrative staff.

No figures are yet available for the numbers of students affected by the new regulations, although in October 14,000 student applications to UK universities were still waiting to be processed in Pakistan alone. There has so far been no dramatic drop in international students – but that could be a consequence of the economic crisis pushing more people into higher education overall, a rise which might mask the number of students being held back because they couldn’t get visas.

The new policy clamps down on international intake and requires staff to turn a suspicious and regulatory eye on their international students. Perhaps surprisingly then, British academia as a whole has remained rather silent on the issue, preferring avoidance to opposition. However, some academics are fighting to raise awareness about a system that could profoundly transform academia (1). Many have signed the Manifesto Club’s petition against these new rules (currently approaching 10,000 signatures) (2), and there are important initiatives over the next couple of weeks, including a meeting this Wednesday at Goldsmiths College in London (3), and a University of Kent petition delivered to Downing Street on 10 December. I spoke to some of those involved about why they are fighting against the new rules.

‘Sheer stupidity’, ‘discriminatory’, ‘damaging for the vitality and exchange that characterises academic life’ – these have been some of the reactions to the new rules from members and officials of the University and College Union, academics at Liverpool University and at Goldsmiths, Kent, Birkbeck and King’s colleges, and others. On 29 May this year, the University and College Union’s (UCU) congress produced a firm resolution opposing the PBS.

A major concern is how the monitoring requirement will affect the relationship between students and professors. ‘How is that coherent with the trust relationship we have to build in order to do our pedagogic work?’, asked Dr Matthew Fuller from Goldsmiths College, London: ‘We shouldn’t be informants for the UKBA.’ His colleague, Dr Natalie Fenton, agreed, arguing that ‘effectively, it might lead students to think we spy on them’. Tutors and lecturers play a complex and important role in guiding young adults into a new chapter of their lives, and foreign students will probably need more academic and social guidance than most. Can trust exist if your professor is reporting on you to the Border Agency?

An article in the November issue of the Kent University Socio-Legal Newsletter voices this concern, saying: ‘These measures fundamentally betray the trust and destroy the openness, upon which academic processes and the ethics of the university depend.’ (4) It is also hard to see how effective monitoring could be implemented, given that lectures generally aren’t compulsory, and art or postgraduate students spend little time in their department because of fieldwork, studio work, literature research, internships, and so on. The new system is based on a model of class-based college teaching, says a UCU representative: ‘Because of the hunt for so-called bogus colleges, a “one-size fits all solution” was applied.’

The application of the PBS has been patchy, however, since there has been little official guidance and no additional funds made available for new costs incurred. As a result, universities and colleges have devised their own solutions, which range from doing nothing at all to having generalised sign-up sheets for students which are collated into a central system (as at Queen Mary and Westfield College in London), or implementing an electronic tag system called ‘Uni-Nanny’ (developed at the University of Glamorgan in Wales). According to Matthew Fuller, university managements have sought to ‘bypass academics as much as possible, perhaps because they knew they would offer greater resistance’.

When the system is reduced to a bureaucratic procedure, issues are de-sensitised as they become reduced to mere practical obstacles. The relative absence of protest might then be due to the overall silence and opacity that has surrounded the PBS. Many professors are still blissfully unaware of a scheme that directly impacts on their working environments, and whose ‘terms and conditions were radically changed without prior consultation’, as one UCU interviewee points out. Natalie Fenton told me about angry colleagues from Brunel University who only heard about the new system in mid-November.

In the long term, we can expect these measures to affect the inflow of international students to Britain. Prospective international students have already been advised by education agents to apply to countries with less rigid immigration regulations. This will be tough on universities and colleges that are increasingly reliant on income from international students. In addition, Fuller says that it is making Britain less appealing for researchers and lecturers, as ‘many prefer not to face a bureaucratic nightmare, especially for shorter-term projects’. He worries that ‘too much money, time and goodwill will have been lost for some individuals to continue wanting to work with the UK or projects to come to fruition’. The Kent Socio-Legal Newsletter mentions the case of a young researcher whose application was blocked because the UKBA had lost his passport, and who resorted to paying a private immigration agent £1,400 because the UKBA’s £800 ‘premium’ visa service had no London appointments available within the month.

There are angry discussions about the new system in countries such as Pakistan, where many individuals have experienced difficulties due to the PBS. Many consider it to be nonsensical, racist, and financially unfair, not to mention contrary to the need for more exchange between cultures, religions and regions.

Some might argue that the difficulties are a necessary price for our security. It is difficult to see how this could be true. After all, attendance monitoring could be easily avoided; as one UCU representative observes, ‘a tag can be swiped by a friend’. Dr Fuller adds that ‘high technologies often do little more than provide a false sense of certainty. Data has no face, no necessary link to reality, but it appears factual and reliable.’ Far from protecting us from terrorists, increasing application fees and requiring proof of savings is more likely to exclude poor but bright candidates, or make applicants dependent on unscrupulous loan agencies. And as the UCU interviewee observed, ‘the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks have both shown that terrorist threats can come from well-to-do, educated backgrounds and home-grown groups’.

This draconian new visa system has potentially damaging consequences for higher education as a whole, affecting not only the practicalities but also the culture of a sector based on the ideal of the free exchange of ideas. The new system appears to have been devised without much thought to its impact or implementation. One Queen Mary undergraduate admissions officer suggested that it is merely ‘a stupid government spin to keep people thinking their security is being assured’.

Some academics argue that the system will be dropped once its impracticalities stare its designers in the face. Yet if there is no opposition, it is equally possible that academia will muddle through – which is why this week’s meeting and other initiatives are so important. Only if academia starts to question these suspicious new rules is a there a real chance that they could be scrapped, or at the very least slackened, for our international student intake in 2010.

Valerie Hartwich is a French-German writer based in London, and a researcher on the Manifesto Club’s campaign against the points-based visa system (read more about the campaign here). You can email Valerie {encode=”” title=”here”}.

Previously on spiked

After 10 Pakistani students were suspected of plotting terrorist attacks, Nathalie Rothschild urged: ‘Don’t close the door to Asian students. Elsewhere, she welcomed the UK University and College Union’s refusal to snoop on foreign students. Patrick Hayes said border police should be kept out of universities. Or read more at spiked issue Immigration.

(1) We won’t collude with efforts to use the academy to police immigration, Times Higher Education, 7 May 2009

(2) View the petition here.

(3) Find out more about the event here.

(4) See The Socio-Legal Newsletter.

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

Topics Politics


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