Universities have become new border agents, monitoring non-EU students on behalf of UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI – previously known as the UK Border Agency). Academics are used to monitoring students for academic and pastoral purposes. Obviously, we care whether students miss classes or fail to submit assessed course work because this is not only negative for their academic progression but may signal that the student needs assistance. However, now we are required to record and report this information about non-EU students for the purpose of meeting UKVI requirements, which may include asking for copies of attendance registers and even correspondence between academics and their students. As Matt Jenkins of Newcastle University argues, in an article in The Geographical Journal, these requirements are altering the structures and ethos of universities by introducing non-academic criteria for establishing the legitimacy of non-EU students and also increasing institutions’ surveillance capacity of students in general, in tension with what we would consider to be the primary purpose of universities (to create and disseminate knowledge). Indeed, there is already anecdotal evidence that some universities are developing ‘smart card technologies’ that would enable the monitoring of students’ mobility on campuses, their use of libraries and other facilities as well as their spending patterns, with the potential for some of this information to be passed on to UKVI.
Feeling outraged about being treated as unpaid border guards, as well as concerned about how monitoring was affecting relationships with our students, a small group of academics from UK universities (Warwick, Oxford, Glasgow, Nottingham Trent, Goldsmiths and Staffordshire) together wrote a letter to The Guardian, objecting to university monitoring of non-EU students on behalf of UKVI and calling on Universities UK to publicly affirm that all students should be treated equally and their privacy respected, irrespective of their nationality. Within a few days, we managed to collect more than 160 signatures and the letter was published alongside an article on the issue. On the back of this letter, we launched a petition, which gathered more than 1000 signatures and was delivered to the President of Universities UK, Sir Christopher Snowden, on 26 March.
Hearteningly, we received letters of support from students thanking us for taking a stand against monitoring. Here is a sample of some of those emails:
I just wanted to drop a line to tell you how amazing it has felt to see the Guardian letter signed by you and others. … I could not help but writing this email … as a non-EU student who has felt increasingly marginalised by the university admin over the past two years in addition to the usual UKBA [ ] procedures.
My girlfriend is an undergraduate student from the United States … 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.
Speaking as a student who has been studying in the UK since 2010, I have found this newly introduced ‘monitoring’ scheme extremely irritating and uncomfortable. … Not to mention the mandatory police registration for students from certain countries, which made me feel like a criminal ….
The National Union of Students has also objected to attendance monitoring as a requirement imposed by the UKVI but stated that ‘When attendance monitoring must happen – institutions have a responsibility to implement systems in a way that preserves the dignity of international students’. Yet, what the above messages, as well as comments from many of our students, tell us is that students are feeling anything but dignified in the face of procedures that single them out for not being EU citizens. UKVI measures are contributing to the drop in university applications from international students, as reported in The Independent.
Perhaps predictably, James Brokenshire, immigration minister, has dismissed our concerns, mischaracterizing them as complaints about checking applicants’ qualifications and restating the need for vigilance against ‘bogus students’. What is more discouraging is that Universities UK has failed to respond publicly to these attacks on international students, except to reiterate their value to the UK economy. One begins to wonder whether the leadership of UK higher education believes that equality of all students should be defended in the face of UK government stigmatization of non-EU students? Or does economic value now trump any other principles?
In the face of this lack of responsiveness on the part of our representatives, we need to continue to speak out and, in that vein, Warwick University UCU branch passed a motion unanimously in March calling for an end to these monitoring requirements. This motion will be debated at UCU’s annual conference in May and, hopefully, adopted as a national campaign. In objecting to the monitoring of non-EU students, we are not only highlighting the harm that is being done to the reputation of UK higher education as a welcoming destination for international students. As Les Back of Goldsmiths, University of London, argued in a recent article in The Conversation, what is also being damaged by UKVI requirements is ‘… the value of the classroom as a space for cosmopolitan dialogue and the ethos of university education itself’.
Nicola Pratt is a Reader of International Politics of the Middle East and the current recipient of a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship.