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28 September: Students Not Suspects

Published onJul 09, 2019
28 September: Students Not Suspects

I give a talk at the beginning of term on the challenges and rewards of scholarship to the new intake of graduate research students. It is always a pleasure. The MPhil/PhD students personify the university’s future as they gather in induction week – intellect, creativity and restlessness, potential and increasingly cosmopolitanism. Much of what is good about university life is on display in that room year in year out. They enrich institutions but as the UK Higher Education International Unit has pointed out Britain sells more brainpower per capita than any other country in the world.

In 2009 a Universities UK study entitled ‘The impact of universities on the UK economy’ found that gross earnings from overseas students in the higher education sector was some £53 billion. While Britain has 1% of the world’s population, 5% of the world’s scientific research is conducted in the UK and scholars working in British universities produce 14% of the world’s most highly cited papers. At the end of the session in 2010 students stay behind to ask about the details of references to follow up or how to find the room the next session is in. A female student waited until all her colleagues had filed out before approaching to ask her question: it wasn’t about the content of the lecture. She said she was from China and wanted to talk about her treatment by the UK Border Agency. Her sense of shock was contained in the way she recounted the indignities she was subjected to; there was a stunned look on her face.

‘They questioned me about my husband, our marriage – they thought it was fake, as if my whole life was a lie.’ I told her she wasn’t alone and that it was shameful, a scandal. I also told her that there was a campaign that is trying to do something about the Border Agency’s treatment of students and staff.

The ‘Students Not Suspects’ campaign is a broad coalition of students, academics and activists who are concerned about the impact that shifts in immigration rules is having on international students and the life of the university. Student migration has become heavily politicized in the UK. In September 2010 Damian Green, the Immigration Minister, reported that student visas had risen from 186,000 in 2004 to 307,000 in 2009. He claimed that one in five students remain in Britain after their visa expires and that only half of the students are studying degree courses.

Students have become the latest object of fear and panic within the debate about immigration and global population mobility. In the public debate new phrases such as ‘bogus students’ (accused of using higher learning illegitimately to gain visas) and ‘backstreet colleges’ (who are selling immigration and not education) are gaining currency. This is despite the fact that students play an essential role in the economy. Overseas students are in effect subsidizing UK universities and in future this income may become increasingly significant to the financial survival of universities. The Chinese student I spoke to after my lecture is paying three or four times as much to study in Britain than her fellow PhD students. In financial terms she is not one student but four. The same study estimated that 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. There is a paradox at the heart of this debate.

British universities are increasingly globalized or what Bill Readings refers to as ‘post-historical’. Readings argues that as a result the role of today’s university has changed profoundly. The university’s relationship to the nation-state is no longer what Schiller or Humboldt thought of as a cultural function to foster national tradition and history through the canonization of knowledge. In a globalized world universities become post-historical in the sense that they are no longer preoccupied with the past but with their 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.

But at the very same time that universities are widening their horizons, the mobility of academics and students is subjected to stricter forms of immigration control. Within the British government’s ‘points-based immigration system’ students from outside the European Economic Area have to prove that they have enough money in their bank account to pay their fees and support themselves. The calculations vary in each case depending on whether the student has ‘established’ presence (i.e. is already a student) and the location of the university and cost of the course. However, in order to gain maximum points for their case, students have to prove that they have approximately £17,000 in the bank (for both fees and subsistence) for twenty-eight days prior to the receipt of their application.

The lifting of the cap on university fees may further complicate the already Byzantine nature of the process of acquiring a visa. If students are applying from one of forty-two countries listed by the UK Border Agency as posing a specific concern – largely Middle Eastern nations but also including China, Columbia, Brazil and Cuba – then they are expected to register with the police. Students and staff who apply to extend their stay in the UK have to submit biometric information (photograph and fingerprints) and carry an identity card. The result of the points-based system is a sifting and ordering of overseas students into groups who are welcomed for their income and talent and others who are treated with suspicion and prioritized for intense forms of scrutiny.

The British university is being used to further the ends of the nation-state but in a different form. Unlike Bill Readings’s image of intellectual and financial flows within the globalized university, higher education is increasingly becoming a pressure point in the politics of border control and migration management. In 2010 the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government established a cap on immigration as a central political pledge. Theresa May, the Home Secretary, has claimed that two-thirds of non-European Union migrants in Britain are students. They number somewhere around 370,000 people.

The university’s role is not the German idealist notion of the university as a place to promote national culture but rather one where border control and the policing of limits of who can belong enter the classroom, including the requirement for university teachers to make their class registers available to the Border Agency. This threatens not only to corrode trust between students and teachers but makes university teachers part of the infrastructure of immigration control. This is what the opponents of these measures are resisting and what makes the Students Not Suspects campaign significant. They offer an alternative vision that refuses the creeping erosion of the rights of international students while arguing for a critical understanding of the place of higher education in a world where population mobility is at an unprecedented level.

Anti-immigrant indignation levelled against overseas students is self-defeating in practical economic terms. Organizations like Migration Watch UK, who applauded the government’s crackdown, claim not to be anti-overseas students. Rather, they want ‘legitimate students’ to study in Britain but insist that they return home afterwards. This ignores the fact that students are not simply ‘cash cows’. During these formative years students also fall in love, meet life partners and sometimes have children and imagine their futures here. Many of the greatest minds in Britain – from Nobel Laureates to cultural theorists – have had this experience.

Will students continue to come when experiences like the one I mentioned earlier start to get back – as they surely will – to potential students looking at their options to study abroad? In the context of the cuts in the public financing of universities this threatens to close off the financial potential for universities to balance the shortfall by recruiting abroad. Overseas students, who are bearing the brunt of these measures, will simply take up options elsewhere and take their financial contributions with them. Returning to the room full of young scholars – many of whom are from different parts of the world – the dynamism and energy on display will be damaged if restrictions of student migration result in fewer overseas students in the future. The result will threaten the cosmopolitanism, which feeds the exchange of ideas that is the intellectual lifeblood of universities in Britain.

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