Treating foreign students as second-class people
Instead of fussing over a few thousand non-EU students at a London university, we should open the borders.
London Metropolitan University recently had all its rights to teach non-EU foreign students revoked by the Lib-Con government. The university is accused of failing to properly regulate its international student intake, allowing itself to be used as an easy means to circumvent UK immigration laws. According to the UK Border Agency, ‘one in four of its overseas students (26 out of a sample of 101) did not have valid visas, 142 out of 250 had “attendance problems” and 20 out of 50 interviewed had limited English’. As a result, London Met’s 2,500 current non-EU students now face deportation unless they can secure a place on a new university course.
The decision to revoke London Met’s ability to teach non-EU nationals, thereby jeopardising the future of its current students, seems incredibly unfair. Students who have already spent months or years on a course may not be able to complete it. International students who have forked out thousands of pounds to study and live in the United Kingdom may, through no fault of their own, be forced home with no degree to show for their efforts.
However, it is clear that London Met’s system for allowing in international students has been abused. The university’s desperation for foreign students’ money has run ahead of its capacity to do the paperwork, maddeningly petty and bureaucratic though it may be. While much sympathy can be afforded to those threatened by the decision, the situation highlights two problems.
Firstly, if you agree with the idea of open borders, as spiked does, the use of British universities in such a way distracts from having a wider argument about immigration. If universities are used as a ‘back door’ into Britain, allowing people to avoid the usual border controls, the issue of immigration and the right of people to free movement is avoided.
Second, the use of British universities in such a way degrades higher education. Allowing British universities to be used as an entry route into the UK does a disservice to the idea of Britain as a world-class centre of higher education. A university system that is used in such a way, even if it is only a problem in less successful universities like London Met, will soon lose credibility.
The debate around London Met has also seen the further instrumentalisation of immigrants. These foreign students, it is claimed, are economic and cultural assets that we must cherish. According to one Guardian commentator, overseas students provide ‘cultural value to their British peers, who need an international outlook’. Treating foreign students as some sort of exotic fruit that Britain needs ignores the real point of being ‘pro-immigration’: which is that the right to live and travel anywhere in the world is a freedom all should be able to enjoy. There is an inherent good within the ability of freedom of movement itself; immigrants should not have to prove that they add some cultural value to the UK. The idea that British students need to be exposed to ‘others’ is also rather condescending, too.
Unfortunately, opposition to the London Met decision has relied too much on misguided arguments. For example, last Friday, London Met students staged a protest against the decision to revoke the university’s right to teach international students. Amid the usual protest chants of ‘Tory scum’, there was much talk of this decision being the result of the ‘racist agenda’ of the Tory government and an ‘attack on multiculturalism’. It was also argued that this was all part of the wider Conservative programme of austerity and an attempt to make higher education more exclusive. According to Jeremy Corbyn, the labour MP, who spoke at the protest, the Lib-Con coalition aims to return to the ‘elitism’ of the 1950s. Yet since the government is still committed to pushing a high proportion of young people through the higher-education system, this accusation seems somewhat bizarre.
One speaker a claimed that the real reason why London Met had its right to teach international students revoked was not because of any failure of the university’s administration, which it was claimed is no worse than any other university’s, but because it gives students a ‘second chance’ and accepts students that Oxford, LSE and Cambridge would not. Presumably, the theory is that this willingness to give people another chance is at odds with the Lib-Con coalition’s hard-nosed promotion of elitism. This little conspiracy theory seems at odds with both logic and reality.
These explanations seem to be desperate attempts to excuse the failings of the London Met management. The decision taken by the UK Border Agency is unfair and wrongly punishes London Met’s international students; there is no need to bolster that argument by making excuses for an incompetent administration. It would be far better to ask why students – indeed, anyone – from outside the EU is being treated as a second-class person rather than given the freedom to travel, study and work where they please.