UCU Election & Migrant-Washing: A View from URBC

On Friday 16 February, the UCU Black Members Standing Committee (UCU BMSC) began their boycott of University College Union (UCU). This boycott comes, as UCU BMSC explains in a statement, after years of,  

[…] bureaucratic hurdles and tokenistic gestures that diminish our agency and representation. Our official complaints have been met with unsatisfactory ‘resolution’, and the union leadership has failed to honour our democratic process, decision-making and political agency. Furthermore, the anti-racist work we do for our constituencies and the wider membership has been further hampered as UCU has not provided us with a dedicated support official for our committee for the last 5 months at this critical time for global anti-racism.

The UCU BMSC boycott is significant given only five months ago, Hakim Adi, one of the only Black history professors in the UK, was made redundant by the University of Chichester. As a member of UCU, when Professor Adi approached the union for legal support, he was instead denied by UCU this urgent support. As Professor Adi has stated, support for him and protecting the MRes programme “has not been effusive” from within UCU.

The mistreatment of UCU BMSC and Professor Adi follows a long history of UCU hostility towards its racialised members. Ten years ago, in November 2014, at the UCU Equality Conference, the BMSC walked out of the event in protest because they had “no trust or confidence in the UCU’s commitment towards fighting racism at the workplace and eradicating institutional racism from its structures and services.” Instead of listening and taking on board their concerns, conference staff and security were called to remove the protest of BMSC. As Unis Resist Border Controls (URBC) expressed in our solidarity statement of the BMSC boycott, “[…] when UK higher education is largely composed of white British staff, it is hardly surprising that the same xeno-racist dynamics that play out in our university workplaces also are transferred to within UCU and its structures.”

At a time of a rather contentious UCU election that will decide who the new general secretary is along with trustees, Vice President for further education and the NEC, and as the BMSC have bravely and once again reminded their union of the institutional racism that plagues UCU, URBC will like to take this time to remind UCU members of the institutional xenophobia and lack of solidarity from union members with migrant issues that do not support their particular class interests.

As largely racialised migrant university staff and students in UK higher education who comprise URBC, we are nearing our eight-year anniversary (5 March). In these eight years, URBC has created a vitally important route for migrant staff and student activism on campus in being the first organisation to challenge and resist the Hostile Environment policy & marketised system that specifically harms migrant students and staff. In these eight years, URBC has made firm links with a number of UCU branches who have supported our work. This includes Birmingham UCU, Durham UCU, Kingston UCU, Manchester UCU, Sussex UCU, Queen Mary UCU, and Ulster UCU. However, apart from branch support, we have seen national UCU use their position to ignore and isolate URBC, a woeful failure to take on points we raise and more importantly a failure of UCU to support their migrant members, best exemplified by the treatment of Riham Sheble, sick with terminal cancer, who was severely let down by national UCU when they refused to grant her legal support in her case against the University of Warwick. It is URBC that has continued to take on the bulk of difficult and intense casework concerning migrant staff and students, some of whom are UCU members who have been catastrophically let down by both their branch and national UCU.

In the following sections, URBC critically unpacks how, during her tenure as General Secretary of UCU, Dr Jo Grady skillfully used the grassroots activism of URBC in ending the Hostile Environment policy in UK higher education to essentially get herself elected. This piece will also examine conservative policies promoted by the Migrant Members’ Committee (MMC), created to ingratiate Dr Grady to migrant members and encourage them to join the union. Yet, the creation of the MMC can also be seen as a way for Dr Grady and UCU to co-opt more radical migrant grassroots activism by watering it down into union bureaucracy. Ultimately, questions must be asked of UCU from the national HQ down to individual branches, regarding their true commitment in ending the Hostile Environment policy and working with, namely, grassroots border abolition groups that are migrant-led, which are  already doing the significant work and solidarity building on this matter.

URBC & UCU General Secretary, Dr Jo Grady

In April 2019, Dr Grady approached URBC via Ms Sanaz Raji’s direct message on Facebook. Ms Raji is the primary caseworker at URBC, founded in March 2016. URBC is a migrant-led national campaign of those who are university lecturers, staff and students working together to end the Hostile Environment policy within UK higher education. Dr Grady was keen to get URBC’s advice concerning the Hostile Environment policy for her election bid for the General Secretary spot. Through their FB direct conversations that you can access here, Ms Raji explained the importance of including the barriers caused by the 180-day rule into Dr Grady’s manifesto and other campaign points, given the number of academics affected, that went viral with the case of Dr Asiya Islam. When Dr Grady’s campaign manifesto was published, she took on Ms Raji’s advice and included the 180-day rule, even including the link of a piece concerning the case of Dr Miwa Hirono, originally shared by Ms Raji during the FB direct conversation. Dr Grady also put a link to a USSbriefs piece written by URBC members. Additionally, in Dr Grady’s 2019 manifesto, she mentioned specifically the work of URBC, stating, 

Powerful staff-led campaigns […] have laboured too long without official support. As General Secretary of UCU, I will create a dedicated task group for surveillance and security issues in colleges and universities (page 16).

URBC members were happy to endorse Dr Grady’s General Secretary bid in 2019 predicated on the belief that she was serious in her intentions of centring our work and working with URBC to end the Hostile Environment policy in UK higher education. A few months after Dr Grady was elected as the new General Secretary, URBC representatives had a meeting in November 2019 with both her and the GS Assistant for Research and Strategy, Dr Nick Hardy. At the meeting, URBC representatives discussed research findings from our study on the Hostile Environment policy in UK higher education, published in The Guardian. Chief among our concerns at the time of the meeting was the result from our study that over half of UK university staff did not understand how the Hostile Environment policy functioned in higher education. Another concern was how increased monitoring was worsening institutional racism towards racialised migrant university staff and students alike. For these reasons, URBC representatives proposed a joint working strategy with UCU, where URBC would design workshops specifically for UCU members. We also discussed working on a toolkit, again in a partnership with UCU. Dr Grady and Dr Hardy liked both proposals but it was Dr Grady who indicated that any partnership with UCU would need to be approved by the newly established Migrant Members’ Committee (MMC). While URBC was glad that a committee within UCU had been established for the union’s migrant members, we were also concerned that barriers had suddenly been created to any joint URBC and UCU partnership on education and outreach on ending the Hostile Environment. Sensing some concern from URBC, Dr Grady once again offered that URBC would be invited soon to take part in a dedicated task group, as mentioned in her manifesto, concerning surveillance and migrant issues. When URBC representatives asked when that dedicated task force would be meeting so that we could clear our diaries, Dr Grady responded that the task force was still in its early days and that we would be notified in due course.

When URBC representatives left the meeting, we decided to adopt a ”wait and see” approach to Dr Grady’s policies. While some of them seemed promising, we felt at the time that while having a committee of migrant members in the union was a positive step, it could also become abused by conservative, class-based arguments that we had seen post-Brexit. In the period before the finalisation of Brexit, the model-migrant discourse, particularly among white Western European citizens, had become the norm in proving to a Conservative government why certain migrants, predominantly those who are middle class, with advanced qualifications should be promoted and, more importantly, protected within an increasingly draconian and vicious bordering system. URBC along with other border abolition groups were concerned about the prevalence of this model-migrant discourse and how it was creating cleavages in potential collective struggle against the state violence promoted and expanded each year as a result of the Hostile Environment policy, which had expanded to include EU citizens, along with non-EU migrants, asylum seekers, refugees and undocumented or irregular migrants. 

After five years, we can clearly see that indeed, our concerns have unfortunately come true. However, URBC would soon learn that Dr Grady was less interested in a collective approach to ending Hostile Environment policy within UK higher education that would include marginalised groups such as asylum seekers and refugee students, in addition to other precarious migrant communities living near university communities. Instead, UCU under Dr Grady began promoting the views of International and Broke  while having established the MMC to stifle more grassroots interventions led by URBC and other border abolition organisations concerned about borders in higher education. The next section will briefly explain more about International and Broke and how their activism, specifically around migrant university staff, created the very divisions that URBC was concerned about. 

International and Broke
International and Broke was formed during or after the 2018 UCU strike as a WhatsApp group of migrant UCU members. Unlike URBC, International and Broke did not engage in either casework or working with other border abolition groups. Instead, their mission was as a lobby group within UCU for migrants coming from other Global Northern countries. In Grady’s 2019 manifesto, International and Broke was mentioned in her section on Hostile Environment. In April 2018, International and Broke set up an X (formerly Twitter) page. The only existence of International and Broke is their now defunct page on X (formerly Twitter). The 2018 UCU strike was instrumental for many reasons, but specifically in that it broke new ground for migrant union members who were permitted to engage in strike action without it affecting their immigration status. Riding on this, International and Broke sought to resist the Hostile Environment as an employment issue. We can see how this would have been a natural progression for International and Broke members coming off of the 2018 UCU strike which had galvanised renewed interest in unionisation, particularly within precarious university staff.

One chief interest of International and Broke was making it mandatory for universities (i.e., employers) to pay for visa and International Health Surcharge (IHS) fees. Already a handful of UK universities, particularly the more elite Russell Group members, were paying these fees in order to entice global talent into their institutions. While visa fees had existed for a number of years, IHS fees were a completely new governmental policy. IHS fees were introduced in April 2015 as part of the first wave of the Hostile Environment policy with the passing of the Immigration Act of 2014, to “ensure that migrants make a proper financial contribution to the cost of their NHS care.” Prior to April 2015, temporary migrants did not have to pay for NHS care. However, in the early noughties, right-wing newspapers began amplifying stories of migrants engaged in “health tourism”, claiming that these migrants, often racialised pregnant women, were abusing the NHS to gain free healthcare. Docs Not Cops (DnC), a grassroots organisation of NHS health professionals, was established in 2014 to fight racism, xenophobia, and barriers as the result of the Hostile Environment policy against migrants getting healthcare, and vehemently opposed the notion that health tourism was overtaking the NHS. DnC created the #PatientsNotPassports campaign to galvanise support of healthcare professionals to oppose the Hostile Environment policy in the NHS. URBC has supported DnC on many of their actions, highlighting why the #PatientsNotPassports campaign was important for migrant staff and students.

In 2017, upfront charges were introduced by the NHS, creating further barriers for undocumented or irregular migrants and failed asylum seekers in accessing the NHS. As a result of this draconian policy explained in this DnC blog, Windrush generation members like Elfreda Spencer and undocumented/irregular migrants like Nasar Ullah Khan were turned away from receiving urgent and critical care on the NHS and told that to access NHS care they would be required to pay the upfront charges of £30,000+. Elfreda Spencer and Nasar Ullah Khan are among 900 irregular migrants who have been denied critical care on the NHS unless they pay upfront charges. Many of these 900 irregular migrants, like Spencer and Khan, have died as a result of being unable to pay the exorbitant costs demanded by the NHS for access to urgent care.

We bring up the DnC and their #PatientsNotPassports campaign to underscore the limited migrant solidarity politics of International and Broke who envisioned challenging some aspect of the Hostile Environment, namely IHS fees, through making employers, namely the university, responsible for paying these fees. Positing one aspect of the Hostile Environment policy via IHS fees as a labour matter for which universities should be responsible for paying, willfully and disturbingly ignores the deeply carceral policies that are essentially killing the most precarious migrants—asylum seekers and undocumented or irregular migrants. In turn, it forgets that universities are not only made of migrants who are on work or student visas, but that there are migrants who are refugees and asylum seekers on Sanctuary Scholarships in addition to other migrants like cleaning and custodial staff. In 2022, SOAS refugee and asylum seeker students launched, with the help of URBC and SOAS Students’ Union, #NoSanctuaryAtSOAS, demanding better provisions including support in registering with a GP because of the enormous barriers in access healthcare as a direct result of the Hostile Environment policy. When #NoSanctuaryAtSOAS refugee and asylum seeker activists learned that academic staff at a number of universities get their IHS fees paid for by their employers, the feeling was overwhelming frustration and disgust, with one asylum seeker student part of the campaign stating, “It’s one policy for the [lecturers] and another for asylum seeker students who they claim to care about.”

This is why we believe International and Broke unintentionally, through perhaps a lack of their own understanding of carceral border structures, created a wedge in collective migrant organising in higher education, by making Hostile Environment a financial issue that should be taken care of by universities, rather than a deeply inhumane policy that should be eradicated as it dictates who lives and who dies.

UCU Migrant Members’ Committee
The MMC was formally established in February 2020, after their first national conference, which heavily promoted International and Broke over the work of URBC. Four years on, there continues to be a troubling lack of awareness by the MMC about the Hostile Environment policy and how it functions both within and outside of higher education. This was clearly seen this past summer, when the MMC responded in July to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s announcement that visa and IHS fees would increase, with the claim that funds generated would be used to pay for wage increases for public sector workers.

The UCU MMC “Trade Union Migrant Solidarity Statement” posited against Sunak’s visa and IHS fees hike that:

Migrants to the UK are overwhelmingly either workers, students, or children. They are individuals who are either contributing or will contribute in the future to economic productivity and pay their fair share of tax and national insurance contributions. They are also likely to be younger and healthier than the overall UK population, making less use of the NHS.”

All migrants deserve medical care regardless of how much medical care they need, or whether they are “workers, students, or children,” an ableist distinction that we must also problematise. This language generates a wedge between young, healthy and able-bodied migrants, and older, disabled and chronically ill migrants. Given the issue of upfront NHS charges as discussed above, the IHS is not the only site of extortion of migrants in healthcare access. Further, the labour value of migrants cannot be the starting, middle or end point of our argument for decent lives. Creating a moral hierarchy such as this opens many doors for both universities and the government to continue to generate conditions and stipulations, endlessly moving goalposts, to keep the “wrong” type of migrants out and continue to criminalise patients. We have seen border policies elsewhere (such as Canada and Australia) use disability and medical conditions as a means for denying visa applications. 

This spits in the face of efforts like #LetRihamStay which should have shown people in the UCU that protecting the most vulnerable of us protects us all. When we think about all the workers affected in debilitating ways by long-Covid and not receiving adequate protections, and know that this could happen to any of us, it should make us wary of allowing arguments that place our value in our (most likely merely temporary) lack of disability. 

To sum this up, we refer to an email we received last year, the content of which is an example of the concern we have around certain rhetoric amongst UCU migrant members, who should be in solidarity with the work of URBC.

We were shocked to receive this email from a current member of the MMC who insinuated that the marking and assessment boycott (MAB) was a “form of racialised violence against students of colour”. The academic claimed that UCU had chosen to disregard what they termed as “legal risks”, referring to a delay/prevention of migrant students from receiving their degrees due to the MAB. URBC responded with an explanation that the precarity that migrant staff and students face, as highlighted as a potential result of the MAB, was at the hands of university executives and the Home Office, who exact border controls upon migrants.

This MMC member then claimed that URBC had failed to give proper “scrutiny” on the industrial action in relation to migrant students for a “campaign committed to migrant rights.” Given this academic’s obvious anti-strike views and their failure to engage with the substantive points that we had clearly outlined in our message to them, we decided to not respond to their accusation, as it was clear they had a very woeful understanding of the strike, in addition to the fact that it is university managers and the Home Office that are at fault for the precarious treatment of migrant students, not UCU industrial action.

We feel this is a symptom of privileged self-involvement, as well as myopic analysis, sadly coming from a UCU member from the MMC. For example, we hope that university workers, union or not, will be able to understand that universities covering visa costs will ultimately only weaken the UCU and work against the interests of migrants, as migrant staff will be even more beholden to universities than they are now and vulnerable to pressure not to participate in industrial action. We already see plenty of people who labour under the delusion that being on visas completely prevents participation in industrial action. We worry that the lack of sensitivity to these power issues within the UCU and a lack of outreach to migrants in higher education may result in more migrant higher education staff scabbing, due to fear of reprisals in the form of refusals to cover immigration-related costs. This would serve to drive another wedge between the workers. We have already heard of cases where managers use the offer of helping with immigration-related costs as a carrot to make their subordinates more compliant, and when this fails, the offer of this financial help has dried up. In retrospect, it seemed odd for UCU to have a dedicated migrant committee within the union rather than streamline migrant issues within the main strands of equality work, particularly the BMSC, Disabled Members’ Standing Committee (DMSC). Migrant issues intersect with many other equality issues and particularly racism and ableism, which are exactly the structural barriers fostered by the Hostile Environment policy.


After five years of consistently trying to engage with UCU, we have no faith that UCU will either change anytime soon, or begin working with grassroots organisations like ours or championing emancipatory politics in a coalition of migrants fighting to end the Hostile Environment policy and other oppressive immigration policies. We remind UCU members that real, fundamental change won’t happen with the election of a new General Secretary who will be making a salary of over £100,000 a year along with the usual perks of being head of a major union. It is for this reason why we have not been invested in the UCU elections given our previous experience with Dr Grady and how disturbingly URBC was tokenised by her and others within the union when we repeatedly reached out to do collaborative work to resist and end oppressive and draconian bordering processes in our universities and communities. We are concerned with how MMC members are, on one hand, willing to call themselves migrants, and yet on the other hand, emboldening a type of conservative migrant policy that in turn oppresses all precarious migrants.

UCU leadership can drive certain partnerships and strategies, but the union’s deeply hierarchical structure and entrenchment in the status quo, and the way this structure rewards careerism over political clarity—rather than radical, abolitionist vision—means that the union will consistently and predictably default to conservative positions and policies. Therefore an election will not change the issues we have identified here. Change must come from below.

Finally, even now, while UCU claims to be a union opposed to the Hostile Environment policy, the union is using Civica, a division of Capita, to collate and count votes. As revealed through a Corporate Watch investigation, Capita is lobbying the UK government for more carceral policies like GPS tracking and electronic tagging of both detained migrants and prisoners.  As UCU continues to not divest USS pensions from genocidal investments, the union simply cannot claim to be ending Hostile Environment policy while they persist in working with and/or investing in companies that strengthen UK’s draconian border regime.


Statement Regarding The Sunday Times “Cash for Courses: Top Universities Recruit Foreign Students on Low Grades”

The Sunday Times front page, 28 January 2024

On Saturday 28 January 2024, The Sunday Times published a piece entitled, “Cash for Courses: Top Universities Recruit Foreign Students on Low Grades.” The piece has since been featured on The Times YouTube channel in addition to the Daily Mail. The main crux of The Times investigation is that migrant students (dubbed foreign or international students) are using the international foundation courses at a number of elite Russell Group universities in order to gain admittance into undergraduate courses despite having lower grades below the entry requirement than their home (British) student counterparts.

This piece follows a number of pieces published by The Sunday Times scapegoating migrant students that are best exemplified by this headline from the 13 December 2023: “Forget small boats and tackle foreign students; Until we restructure our university system, an over-reliance on overseas money will make net migration rise ever higher”. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that with a general election in the horizon that the Conservatives’ favourite publication will be fixated on targeting migrant students as a means to encourage further initiatives in bringing down net migration into the UK. Already, the Conservatives have utilised this tactic in order to successfully put an end to migrant undergraduate and taught postgraduate students bringing over their dependents. Meanwhile, both the Russell Group and Universities UK have launched statements that vehemently refute the The Sunday Times investigation. Wonkhe has also unpacked the factual errors made by The Sunday Times investigation that we urge people to explore further. Currently, the Department of Education will be launching an investigation into bad recruitment practices of migrant students. Whatever comes from this investigation will take us away from the real structural problems that migrant students are experiencing and that lead to how they are treated in UK universities.

Investigative pieces on migrant students have real implications,  helping to further fuel xeno-racist immigration measures that specifically target racialised migrant students. We cannot forget that ten years ago, in February 2014, a BBC Panorama investigation made allegations that largely racialised migrant students from South Asia (Pakistan, India, Bangladesh) had “scammed” their way through English language tests required as part of their university course in order to remain in the UK to work illegally. As a result of the BBC Panorama piece, 2,500 migrant students were deported while another 7,200 were forced to leave the UK—all without the ability to contest charges brought against them by the Home Office regarding the BBC Panorama investigation. There were migrant students who stayed in the UK with much struggle and contested the Home Office regarding the accusation of cheating on their English language tests. Despite being vindicated in an Upper Tribunal decision in March 2016, many of these students living precariously in the UK are still blacklisted from resuming their university courses in addition to experiencing barriers as a result of the Hostile Environment policy, which includes barriers to right to work, right to rent and accessing the National Health Service (NHS). In other cases, the families of these accused migrant students have disowned them, mistakenly believing that they have done something wrong while in the UK. Many of these migrant students suffer from mental health issues from this orchestrated ordeal. In February 2022, the BBC indicated that they had uncovered new evidence that further exonerated these migrant students implicated in their 2014 BBC Panorama piece. Despite overwhelming evidence pointing to serious flaws in the international testing organisation, ETS, that carries out English language testing, the Home Office still continues to remove migrant students. As for BBC Panorama, who broke the original flawed report, no apology has been made in how their report damaged the lives of racialised migrant students and their families. Since 2018, Unis Resist Border Controls (URBC) has supported some of these migrant students. We continue to see those migrant students affected by this scandal struggling to survive as a result of the Hostile Environment policy, much less being able to resume their studies. 

It is important to unpack the 2014 BBC Panorama investigation. For every time we hear from fellow academics, student activists and some border abolitionists, all of whom maintain utilising the media can be a useful tool in defending precarious migrants, we must not forget that media, especially outlets that claim to be fair and impartial, can also feed into the very right-wing, xenophobic and deeply racist views that elicit draconian and carceral governmental responses. In the early noughties, the Daily Mail led the way with a series of sensational reports claiming that the student visa route had brought in “bogus migrant students” who were coming to the UK to work, not study. The bogus migrant students in question always came from South Asia, making it more than obvious the apparent racism directed at certain migrant students who are racialised. Furthermore, the Daily Mail often conflated the 20 hours that migrant students are permitted to work in the UK with engaging in unlawful work hours. All of this led the way for more pernicious bordering processes to enter UK higher education during the waning Labour government under Gordon Brown. When the coalition government came into power, then Home Secretary Theresa May used the manufactured crisis of bogus migrant students to end the post-study work visa in 2012, along with targeting London Metropolitan University and rescinding for six months their ability to sponsor both migrant students and university staff, leading up to the start of, more pernicious inner border controls of what we now know as the Hostile Environment policy itself.

The current piece in The Sunday Times recycles the bogus migrant student discourse through targeting another group of racialised students—Chinese and other East Asians. Racialised migrant students become the continual scapegoat for the racist right-wing and liberals alike to claim that (white) British students are being “squeezed out” by racialised migrant students, or that more racialised migrant students “dumb down” prestigious Russell Group university programmes. The latter point is interesting given that recently The Guardian ran a piece indicating that over half of UK undergraduate university students use AI to assist in writing essays. Perhaps using AI has a lot to do with the obvious fact that both home and migrant students face real financial burdens as a result of the inequalities exacerbated by a marketised higher education policy, with some home students forced to work long hours at multiple part-time jobs to survive, while migrant students who are allowed to engage in part-time work increasingly find themselves subjected to immigration raids and border violence, as in the case of Muhammad Rauf Waris

URBC is not interested in defending UK higher education, least of all the Russell Group, as some academics on various social platforms have done. It is also highly amusing that of all publications, The Sunday Times suddenly realises UK higher education runs on a marketised system and that migrant students’ high tuition fees subsidise home student tuition fees. Even more amusing is that The Sunday Times reporters who are outraged by agents forget that wealthy and elite British families use another form of agents to get their children admitted to Oxbridge schools—their class connections and large donations. Reports like that from The Sunday Times are a smoke screen to the endemic problems and structural violence that migrant students experience in UK higher education that are tied to racial capitalism via marketised higher education and carceral borders through the Hostile Environment policy. Despite a number of universities offering reparations for the historical responsibility in profiting from the trans-Atlantic slave trade, colonialism has never ended in UK higher education, as we argued in 2018—rather it has transferred to how migrant students are exploited within the machinery of higher education and immigration policy. More specifically, we witness the strong hand of colonialism in how immigration status has been weaponised, as we saw early on during the Covid-19 pandemic, when migrant students were left without support, with a significant number, often coming from Global South, facing forced withdrawals for not being able to pay their tuition fees, thereby subjecting them visa curtailment and removal from the UK. Interestingly, while some academics, particularly those who are members of University College Union (UCU) on social media, engage in pearl-clutching over the The Sunday Times report, four years ago they failed to join URBC to stop a significant number of migrant students being subjected to removal because of problems paying tuition fees during a global pandemic. Outrage without action is neither solidarity nor will produce the meaningful changes needed for migrants working and studying at our universities.

The right-wing press wants to scapegoat racialised migrant students for the woes of UK higher education. Our resistance should not feed in this inherently racist and xenophobic discourse. At the same time, our resistance is wasted if we believe that we can reform the neoliberal and carceral university when so many inequalities are perpetuated against migrant students who are racialised, disabled, and working class, in addition to other racialised, disabled and working class home students as a result of this carceral marketised system. Effective resistance can only be enabled by eradicating the way UK higher education works hand in hand with border policies, counter-terrorism, and funding genocide in Palestine. Resistance is not an individual endeavour but a collective one rooted in the cultivation and imagination of what a transformative higher education environment should be, and working towards this.

Steps that you can be taking to make this resistance happen:

1. Inviting URBC to facilitate a series of workshops at your university.

2. Working consistently with URBC in fact finding at your university concerning the treatment of migrant students and staff. 

3. Supporting URBC when we take on casework that will have a collective merit for both migrant students and migrant staff. 

It is through these steps that we empower migrants inside UK higher education to push back and end the very carceral policies affecting our safety and wellbeing.  

Statement from URBC on The Observer’s “Human traffickers ‘using UK universities as cover'”

After years on the frontline, Unis Resist Border Control (URBC)  have extensive familiarity with the exploitative situations migrant students in the UK find themselves in. As such, we are extremely concerned about The Observer article “Human traffickers ‘using UK universities as cover’” published on 3 July 2022 by Shanti Das, and the conclusions that are drawn upon.

The Conservatives have used human trafficking as a pretext to enforce more draconian border controls, including expanding the hostile environment policy. Likewise, anti-trafficking policies have instead criminalised exploited migrants, rather than going after the real problem- the UK’s inhumane border regime.  

The Home Office and the UK university sector cannot place sole blame on migrant students for a situation which their own actions have so clearly created, especially in treating migrant students like ‘cash cows’, as we have often chronicled.  Indeed it is shocking to see very hostile environment type approaches that have enabled this kind of grim exploitation of migrant students cast as a solution in Shanti Das’ piece when the history of such approaches includes: 

  • Over 20 years of No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF), wherein migrant students & all other migrants have no access to state funds and support services.
  • Paltry pastoral support within universities for migrant students. 
  • High tuition, visa and International Health Surcharge fees, along with soaring living costs, forcing migrant students to take on exploitative gig economy work to survive, leading them into exploitative employment situations.  
  • The on-going Covid-19 pandemic, pushing cash-strapped migrant students and their families into further exploitative situations that hinder their ability to complete their university education, much less to actually survive in the UK.

An example of Daily Mail front pages, depicting migrant students as ‘bogus’.

We notice that the article seems to focus on Indian students. URBC has serious concerns about the potential for punitive targeting of Indian students on the basis of this reportage. Greater suspicion of Indian students will not help to solve these severe problems. Indeed, during the mid 2000s, the UK media had a rash of articles, often daily, depicting primarily South Asian migrant students as ‘bogus’ and not really students at all. These stereotypes led the coalition government (Conservatives + Liberal Democrats) from 2010-2015 to justify the hostile environment policy in UK universities, mandating strict and pervasive attendance monitoring of migrant students and staff. It also led the the racist and xenophobic targeting of largely South Asian TOEIC students in 2014 who were forced off their courses and removed from the UK without being able to exercise proper due process within the UK. They were vindicated in 2016 after a British court found that 48,000 students were wrongfully removed from the UK. Despite being vindicated in the courts, TOEIC students continue to have problems, some have been blacklisted from continuing their education, getting visas to return back to the UK to resume their education, regularising their visas in the UK to remain in the country, and in other cases estranged from family because of the shame of being branded by the Home Office and the UK media as “exam cheats”.

Ten years of the hostile environment policy have introduced multiple surveillance points in the UK workplace, housing, accessing the NHS, schools, universities, and services. Migrant students represent a relatively compliant workforce: in our experience they often do not know much about unions, they may not know what the UK minimum wage is, they are unfamiliar with the notion of a living wage, and they don’t know about their rights as workers in the UK. These gaps in knowledge are being exploited already. Some migrant students are being threatened with sacking if they don’t work beyond their  visa-allotted 20 hour limit.  Why not talk to the migrant students who are being horribly exploited by both commodified higher education and draconian borders instead of writing stories that enforce more blanket surveillance of migrant students and all other migrants?

What would sincere help for migrant students in these exploitative conditions look like? Would it be a campaign to make sure migrant students knew their rights and had clear recourse if they were threatened or had their passport taken away? Surely it would not be greater surveillance under the existing hostile environment in UK higher education. Veiled threats that universities could lose their ability to host migrant students on visas will only create worse conditions for migrant students and staff, not for universities already increasing migrant student enrolment. Das’ piece will only push further universities, under the guidance of the Home Office, to install more pernicious surveillance targeting migrant students and staff. This will lead to a more heightened carceral environment, both affecting and interfering in the way migrants teach, learn and research in UK universities. 

Thoughts from URBC on recent student occupations and fee strikes.

Unis Resist Border Controls (URBC) a national campaign comprising migrant students, lecturers, and activists fighting to end the two pronged beasts within UK higher education, that being of course border control via the hostile environment policy and exploitation brought on my neoliberal, marketised education. Unlike the student movement ten years ago which ignored the plight of international students, URBC has been a steadfastly free education campaign, believing that the fight for free education should be extended to migrants, whatever their immigration status.

The global pandemic has shown us more starkly, the structural inequalities that exist for migrants, whether you are a student, university staff, or a cleaner. During the first lockdown, URBC conducted a joint study and found that 56% of international students were either destitute or at risk of destitution because of woefully inadequate support structures in place at their respective universities, in addition to no recourse to public funds (NPRF), meaning that international students on a Tier 4 visa are prevented from accessing benefits, housing support and many other services that are available for British citizens.

For the past year, URBC has been fighting to protect international students who have been forcibly withdrawn off of their courses for simply being unable to pay the next instalment of their tuition fee. A withdrawal from a university means that these students now face visa curtailment and possible deportation. Many of these students have taken out exploitative loans in India that mean, without a degree and the ability to get a good job, they not be able to repay these loans and their families will lose their homes and go into bankruptcy. Meanwhile these students watch on the sidelines as family members and friends die of COVID as India enters a deadly second wave, while they are fighting to remain in the UK and complete their studies.

URBC is delighted to see students standing up and refusing to be further exploited and making links with migrant Black and PoC cleaners and other precarious members of staff, particularly lecturers on zero contract hours, However, URBC also believes that British students need to make further links how marketised higher education is affecting and harming international students. As we have said before, if international students are the ‘cash cows’ then British students are the ‘cash goats’ and universities during this pandemic have been all too eager to exploit all of you while putting university staff, cleaners and other custodial staff in harm’s way during a deadly pandemic. This is why URBC urges you to support our fight for Tuition Fee Amnesty NOW! URBC demands that until the pandemic is over, universities should waive tuition fees completely so as to not jeopardise further the immigration status of international students, particularly from working class backgrounds who are unable to pay tuition fees because of the pandemic. We can use this demand to galvanise a real movement for free education that is particularly needed now that doesn’t leave anyone out.

We cannot be organising in our silos anymore. We must see the neoliberal, marketised higher education as not only corrupt system, but contributing to structural inequalities and oppression from the woeful treatment of cleaners, to threats of staff redundancies, to the manner that universities are supporting Black Lives Matter to mask their institutionally racist policies, in addition to the manner that universities weaponise the immigration statuses of their students and staff. This is why we must work for bigger things, for demands that elevate, for demands that leave no one out, for demands that really push to end the draconian & oppressive structures within UK higher education.

Caroline Lucas Agrees with URBC: “It is cruel for the Government to simply abandon international students”

A member of Unis Resist Border Controls (URBC) shared this response they received from Caroline Lucas, MP for Brighton Pavilion. This response follows taking part in our #MichelleMocksStudents action where we asked supporters to send this template letter to their MPs demanding #TuitionFeeAmnesty for international students affected by the multiple UK COVID-19 lockdowns.

Lucas’s thorough message is nothing like what we received from Minister for Universities, Michelle Donelan, whose response to our letter misgendered founder and URBC member, Sanaz Raji, while failing to address the substance of our #TuitionFeeAmnestyNOW letter. By ignoring the shocking evidence presented in the #TuitionFeeAmnestyNOW letter, Donelan, in effect, mocked the hardships faced by precarious international students, many of whom have been withdrawn from their studies, left in penury, and now face visa curtailments and eventual deportation without the prospects of being able to finish their studies.

However, if Donelan’s response was bad, former shadow minister for universities, Emma Hardy, would take it to an absurdly worse level by having to be shamed online by URBC for waiting seven months to write a response to our letter. Hardy’s response was significantly worst than her Tory counterpart, indicating that the opposition equally cares so little about the dire plight of international university students in the UK. URBC meticulously outlined the incompetence of Emma Hardy, who resigned from her position on the 9th March 2021, following consistent call outs by URBC on social media after Hardy failed to properly respond to the merits of our #TuitionFeeAmnestyNOW letter.

Therefore, it was good to read the response by Caroline Lucas who thoughtfully engage with the demands from the #TuitionFeeAmnestyNOW.

Some take-aways from the response by Lucas

Lucas, who is the Vice-Chair of the All Parliamentary Group for Students, indicates the following in her letter:

1. Lucas urges the Government to find a solution so that student rents can be forgiven and universities can reimburse tuition fees.

2. The All-Parliamentary Group for Students is looking into creating a hardship fund for students who faced poverty as a result of the global pandemic. Lucas was “gravely concerned” to find that 56% of international students are either destitute or a risk of destitution”, following the joint study that URBC conducted with MRN on the the effects of COVID-19 on international students.

3. Lucas agrees with URBC that marketised higher education is exploiting international students, stating:

“It is cruel for the Government to simply abandon international students and, as you say, they should not simply be seen as a source of revenue for universities. In fact, one of the arguments I have made over and over to Ministers is the extent to which that pandemic has highlighted once again the flaws in our HE funding model, a model I have repeatedly campaigned against.”

4. Lucas is against no recourse to public funds (NRPF) for migrants, and wants to see an end to the hostile environment policy and to exorbitant university tuition fees.

5. And finally, Lucas states, “I will continue to look for opportunities to press the Government to suspend NRPF restrictions and offer financial compensation, including to protect international students.”

While many of the points that Lucas mentioned in her letter are ones that URBC also agrees with, we disagree when Lucas states that “students have not had anything like the teaching, experiences or supervision for which they have paid.” Lucas risks implying in this comment that teaching has been lackluster during the pandemic. URBC reminds Lucas and others that many lecturers, particularly migrant lecturers, and PhD students, along with those on zero-contract hour lecturing positions, especially those who are cis and trans women, and Black and women of colour, have bent over backwards to provide the best possible teaching in difficult circumstances, also providing unprecedented levels of pastoral support, while at the same time facing job cuts and on-going threats of redundancies by university managers.

Currently staff at Goldsmiths, University of London are engaged in a marking strike to stop 700 jobs from being cut. And we know all too well how universities are using the excuse of the global pandemic and supposed “income loss” to usher in job cuts, such as at the University of Manchester during the start of the pandemic, and most recently the University of Liverpool, University of Brighton, and the University of Leeds are among nine universities in the UK instituting job cuts during the pandemic. URBC expects that Lucas will direct her ire at university managers and Vice Chancellors for putting students and university staff in unsafe conditions with a complete lack of support during this pandemic that continues to endangered our lives.

What you can do

URBC has resent our letter on #TuitionFeeAmnesty to the new shadow minister for universities, Matt Western. We don’t hold out too much hope, given the bad track-record that Western has had in his Warwick and Leamington constituency on university issues, particularly in not giving full support to the Warwick University rent strikers and championing blended-learning rather than moving online, which led to a significant rise in COVID-19 cases across UK university campuses. That said, if we put enough pressure on Western and all other MPs on the All-Parliamentary Group for Students, we can make a dent in getting #TuitionFeeAmnestyNOW.

Therefore, it is import to continue to send this template letter to your MP and al the MPs on the All-Parliamentary Group for Students in demanding #TuitionFeeAmnestyNOW.

URBC Supports Sisters Uncut, UKBLM, & Others in Abolishing the Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill, #KillTheBill!

URBC member Louisa, speaking at the Sisters Uncut Manchester #KillTheBill protest, 20 March 2021.

Statement from URBC, #KillTheBill

 Unis Resist Border Control (URBC) stands in rage and solidarity with Sisters Uncut and all other prison and border abolition organisations in opposition to the Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill. It’s been a long week. we are thankful for all the work Sisters Uncut in London have done for linking the disappearance of Sarah Everard to wider issues about policing, state violence and highlighting the dangers of this bill.

URBC is a national campaign to end the hostile environment policy and border controls within UK higher education. In the past year, we have witnessed in horror as Home Secretary Priti Patel has strengthened the border regime to horrifying levels of brutality and violence. Just this week, it has been revealed that Patel is considering removing people who arrive in the UK to seek asylum overseas for their claims to be processed. In essence, Patel is seeking to bring the brutal Australian immigration regime of Manus Island, to the UK.

Just as Patel and this government seeks to further demonise, marginalise, criminalise and oppress migrants, they are  doing the very same to demonise, marginalise, criminalise, and oppress dissent, the BLM movement, sex workers, homelessness and the Gypsy, Roma and Travellers community. The proposed Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill makes this explicit. Not only do migrant communities, which includes those with documents, under-documented, undocumented, and asylum seekers now have to contend with the renewed violence of the hostile environment policy, but they will also have to contend with draconian policing that will be used to curtail our voices from protesting Priti Patel’s xeno-racist policies. 

If this bill becomes law, protesting as a migrant, particularly as a migrant of colour, could end up with deportation as a criminal sentence for protesting would ultimately prevent one from remaining in the UK. 

URBC is concerned with how this bill will prevent migrants from protesting against workplace exploitation and unsafe work conditions. We have seen migrants make great in-roads in workplace rights. During the University College Union 2018 strike against pension cuts, migrant university staff members were only allowed to strike 14 consecutive days. Thanks to a surge in migrant staff striking, and demanding strike provisions in line with those of their British counterparts, strike laws changed to allow migrant workers to not be discriminated against if taking part in legal strike actions.

However, with the proposed bill, legal strike actions will be in jeopardy. wildcat strikes and protests done by migrant university cleaners as exemplified by SOAS Justice for Workers, and KCL Justice for Cleaners, would be even more difficult to organise.

URBC knows all too well how universities are quick to use the police to quell protests on campus, clearly shown by the heavy handed response to rent strikes at the University of Manchester halls of residence. And if we don’t use all our energy in opposing this bill, we will see more police and state violence everywhere, from protesting & striking on university campuses, to workplaces, to protesting outside of detention centres and prisons, and in settings like this.

So get involved. We need to keep this momentum going. The bill isn’t being rushed through anymore but it’s still there, waiting to be put into law if it passes. Grassroots organisations like Sisters Uncut are doing most of the work and if we want to prevent this Bill or oppose any other harmful legislation brought about by this government, we need to be ready for the fight.

Emma Hardy, Shadow Minister for Universities has Resigned: URBC Document’s Her Incompetence

Former shadow minister for FE & universities tweeting on the 24th February 2021, concerning the situation of international student accessing food banks. URBC sent her a letter endorsed by 530 university lecturers, students (international and British) and union representatives about the precarity of international students during the first COVID lockdown on the 10 August 2020, and never received an adequate response from Hardy’s office.

Emma Hardy stepped down from her role as shadow minister for universities on Monday 8th March. Replacing Emma Hardy is Matt Western, MP for Warwick and Leamington. Western, married to Rebecca Earle, Professor in the Department of History at the University of Warwick, is described in his They Work For You profile as having consistently voted against a stricter asylum system, yet there isn’t much information about his votes on higher education policy to ascertain his views on the current untenable situation in UK universities.

It’s not surprising that Hardy stepped down when for the past few weeks URBC along with Liberate the University and Pause or Pay UK have documented her incompetence as shadow minister for universities. And just to be fair, URBC has also documented the deliberate incompetence of Michelle Donelan, Conservative Minister for Universities a number of times and even had a online protest, #MichelleMocksStudents, on the 3rd December 2020.

Yet, it is equally disturbing that the Labour opposition has done no better in holding their Tory counterparts responsible for the shambolic situation in UK higher education affecting university staff and both international students and home students during the global pandemic.

While Emma Hardy has indicated that she has stepped down as shadow minister owing to the COVID situation in her constituency, URBC believes that our consistent call outs regarding her silence concerning international students being left destitute while others are being withdrawn off of their degrees and having visas curtailed for being unable to pay their tuition fees, have contributed to Hardy’s recent resignation.

URBC tweet on the 5th February 2021 concerning a meeting that former shadow minister for universities, Emma Hardy had with student activists and SU officers.

A Timeline of Incompetence

On Monday 10 August 2020, URBC CCed Emma Hardy in a letter sent via email demanding tuition fee amnesty. This letter was endorsed by over 500 university academics, university staff, students (international and home), in addition to union representatives and student union (SU) officers. You can read the full letter here.

For months URBC tried to engage a response from both Minister for Universities, Michelle Donelan and the Shadow Minister for Universities, Emma Hardy to no avail. It would take Donelan three months to respond to our letter. As URBC has chronicled, while Donelan’s response was horribly inadequate, ignoring the dire situation that international students are facing during the pandemic, it would be over six months and a lot of online shaming for Emma Hardy to respond.

Here is how it all started.

On the 3rd February 2021, members of Liberate the University along with SU officers attended a Zoom meeting with Emma Hardy. During the meeting, Hardy was asked about the situation concerning international students and she said:

“international students have been ignored which is bad because they contribute so much; not just fees but also diversity and cultural richness”

URBC along with Liberate the University regard Hardy’s remarks as wholly unacceptable and utterly deficient. At a time when international students are being made destitute as URBC has written about here and here, as a result of marketised/neoliberal higher education structures and the hostile environment policy, Hardy reduced the international student experience to the contribution they bring to UK higher education. And by contribution, ministers on both sides of parliament really mean money, reducing international students to cash cows instead of students in need of assistance and support.

Therefore, on the 5th February, URBC tweeted to Emma Hardy in an attempt to call out her patronising tone on international students and to alert her that she has failed to answer to the over 500 lectures, students and union representatives that signed our tuition fee amnesty letter. Read the twitter thread here.

To the surprise of URBC, Hardy responded to our tweets and even privately messaged us on Twitter requesting that we resend the letter we had originally sent on the 10 August 2020.

Private DM on Twitter from Emma Hardy on the 5 February 2021.

On Monday 8th February, we re-sent our tuition fee amnesty letter to Emma Hardy, CCing her office assistant.

However, after additional week of waiting, URBC failed to receive a response from Hardy’s office. That is when on the Monday 15 February, URBC launched #EmmaHardlyWorking, and gave Hardy a deadline of the end of the day to respond to our letter after waiting over six months for a response.

On the same day, Hardy’s office emailed URBC an official correspondence at 4:39PM. However, Hardy’s response to our letter was an absolute insult that completely ignored the merits of tuition fee amnesty for international students facing financial problems as a result of the global pandemic. As for the offer of a meeting, it seemed an entirely inadequate response when Hardy was unwilling to acknowledge the many problems that international students are facing that was meticulously unpacked in our letter.

From Bad to Worse

URBC found Hardy’s response truly disappointing given the extremely long wait coupled by the lack of a real tangible response. But things were about to get worse. Hardy’s behaviour on Twitter would show how little she was concerned about the dire plight of international students forced into destitution, accessing food banks and being forced off their degrees for the inability to pay their tuition fees because of the financial precarity that they are experiencing both in the UK and in their respective country of origin.

On the 24 February, Hardy tweeted shock over international students queuing up at a food bank in London, asking what universities they go to. URBC found Hardy’s tweet hypocritical, given that we warned her of the problem of international student destitution in our tuition fee amnesty letter in addition to the many interviews we have conducted both nationally and internationally on the matter. URBC has consistently stated that marketised higher education along with the hostile environment policy are to blame for the situation that international students are facing during the global pandemic. Therefore we responded to her tweet with the following reply, (read here and here).

Then Hardy blocked URBC on Twitter following our Twitter satire poll mocking her woeful incompetence as shadow minister for universities.

Therefore, it was unsurprising that Hardy resigned from her shadow minister position earlier this week. Hardy has shown both home and international students how little she cared or was willing to fight for our respective problems in Parliament. If the Labour response under the new shadow minister for universities, Matt Western is more of the same, he can expect a thorough challenging from URBC, along with other student activists involved in rent and tuition fee striker, many of those who are taking part are both international and home students.

What student activists and international students can learn from our dealings with Emma Hardy, or any politician for that matter, is not to compromise your demands for a few crumbs. If a politician wants to meet with your group but has consistently failed to show an understanding to the situation at hand and continues to take the side of the university, your group is wasting time in trying to reason with someone (politician, VC, university manager, yes even SU officers) who is championing a marketised/neoliberal higher education agenda that has gotten us into this mess in the first place. The only way we can truly transform and stop the violence & inequalities emanating from marketised/neoliberal higher education is to participate in rent & tuition fee strikes as so many students are doing all over the UK. Even staff at Goldsmiths, University of London are engaged in a marking strike to stop 700 jobs from being cut. It is important to note that if we are going to be successful in stopping further abuses within marketised/neoliberal higher education, student and staff solidarity will be crucial to the struggle and the work ahead.

Trade union work & building movements to fight the hostile environment: be like Birmingham UCU!

Unis Resist Border Controls (URBC)h would like to thank the University of Birmingham branch of UCU for their donation of £250 pounds to URBC. Donations like these help us to sustain our work organizing, campaigning and providing casework support for those facing the hostile environment.

We applaud the Anti-racism Working Group of the UCU branch at Birmingham for thinking to include donations to grassroots groups in their Anti-racist planningLike many trade unionists, we believe that the kind of change that all workers and students in Higher Education need to see extend beyond “bread and butter” trade union issues, and public sector workers cannot win without consider the entire context of the public, including those who are excluded from the services that they provide.

With this in mind, and following the example of UCU Birmingham, along with UCU Sussex, UCU Kent, UCU Sheffield Hallam, UCU Edinburgh, & UCU Bath we’d like to provide some further suggestions for how local UCU branches can support their migrant members and build a labour-community united front against the racist and xenophobic profit-seeking systems that impoverish us all:

  1. Pass motions or otherwise make branch-level commitments to fight the hostile environment at your university, in your local community, and beyond. Some things this work might involve or things that you might commit your branch to in any motions are the following:
  • Arrange for URBC to provide training on how to support migrant staff and students at your institution when they face problems with their migration status
  • Actively respond with information to calls from URBC to help gather information about how the hostile environment functions at your institution
  • Collaborate with migrant and other student activists to demand that your institution cut ties with industries that create migrant death and precarity. This includes the Home Office, along with many software, private security and military contractors that promote border regimes.
  1. If your branch has sufficient funds, make one-off or, even better, regular donations to Unis Resist Border Controls along with other grassroots and abolition campaigns seeking to end the hostile environment, no recourse to public funds, detention centres and prisons that URBC works in conjunction with. A complete list of groups can be found here: https://www.unisresistbordercontrols.org.uk/resources-2/
  1. UCU casework officers – book a special training from URBC members on how to support the legal rights of your members. 

URBC is taking part in Migrant Members’ Conference on Thursday 3 December 2020 as part of the UCU Equality Conference. We look forward to reaching out to wider UCU networks about the work that we do.

#MichelleMocksStudents: Minister of State for Universities responds to URBC’s #TuitionFeeAmnestyNow for international students

On the 26th November 2020, after waiting over three months, Unis Resist Border Control (URBC) finally received a response from Michelle Donelan, Minster of State for Universities to our #TuitionFeeAmnestyNOW letter. URBC along with the Migrants’ Rights Network (MRN) sent a comprehensive letter on the 10th August 2020 that explained in detail why international students demand #TuitionFeeAmnestyNOW.

The URBC/MRN letter, signed by 530 students, university lecturers, UCU, Unison, IWW union representatives, along with anti-racist, and migrant rights organisations, indicated the following:

1. In a study conducted by URBC and MRN, of the international students who responded during the first national COVID-19 lockdown, 56% indicated that they are either destitute or at risk of destitution. In response, URBC offered financial assistance to international students due in part to inadequate support structures at their universities and because of no recourse to public funds (NRPF) which prevents Tier 4 student visa holders access to public funds like universal credit and housing benefits that could be used to prevent destitution.

2. Many international students were withdrawn from their university courses for being unable, during a global pandemic, to pay their tuition fees. URBC and MRN further explained that in many cases affected students cannot pay the remainder of their university tuition fees because their families are also in lockdown in their respective countries and unable to work and send them money. Because their universities are also their visa sponsors, being withdrawn would undoubtedly put Tier 4 students in jeopardy of becoming undocumented and at risk of deportation.

3. The findings of the URBC study on the hostile environment in UK higher education highlighted numerous cases of university lecturers and research staff indicating the particular exploitation that Tier 4 students experience within UK higher education that treat them as essentially “cash cows”. URBC & MRN further state:

” If UK universities continue to treat their Tier 4 students like revenue streams to exploit rather than students with aspirations and dreams, expect to see fewer Tier 4 and EU students enrolling in UK higher education institutions.”

For these reasons, URBC & MRN demanded that there be a #TuitionFeeAmnestyNOW to be imposed to prevent Tier 4 student visa holders from being withdrawn from their courses during the global pandemic and face further violence as a result of the hostile environment policy.

However, Michelle Donelan’s letter, not only misgendered founder and URBC member, Sanaz Raji, it also failed to address the substance of the joint URBC & MRN #TuitionFeeAmnestyNOW letter.

Donelan is, in effect, cruelly mocking the hardships of precarious international students, many of whom have been withdrawn from their studies, are left in penury, and now face visa curtailments and eventual deportation. This is why we must actively work to end marketised higher education and the hostile environment policy within UK universities.


1. Send this template letter to your MP demanding that they encourage Michelle Donelan, Minster of State for Universities to reconsider her decision not to grant a #TuitionFeeAmnestyNOW: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1U9NlCRWoFFJ0S5-_CULlEFm7Q-GKF-AXBZ7cIfE6Sys/edit

2. Join URBC on Thursday 3rd December for a Twitter storm from 11AM- 7PM @michelledonelan, #MichelleMocksStudents. Details here: https://tinyurl.com/yxcp7duy

The IHS is unhealthy for everyone: the hostile environment as a threat to wellbeing in Higher Education and beyond

by Gwyneth Lonergan (Lancaster University) and Samuel Solomon (University of Sussex)

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the International Health Surcharge (IHS) has gotten a lot of media attention as the government agreed, after much public pressure, to waive the surcharge for migrant NHS staff and care workers. The surcharge is a levy applied to work, spousal, and student visas, and was introduced following the 2014 Immigration Act, ostensibly to defray the ‘cost’ of migrants on these visas to the NHS.  Initially set at £200/year [£150 for students], it was increased to £400/year in 2018, and will rise to £624 in October.   A person applying for a three- year Tier 2 (General) work visa will therefore pay £1,872 for the health surcharge alone.  Non-EU migrants therefore pay a very literal price to work and study in the UK.  A Tier 2 (General) visa costs a minimum of around £450/year, in addition to the health surcharge, and applying for “Indefinite Leave to Remain” costs a minimum of £2,389.

We at Unis Resist Border controls (URBC) welcome the news that the IHS will be waived for NHS staff and care workers, although we wonder how this will be implemented in practice (at the time of writing, it seems the answer is: unevenly at best).  Will an international student who gets a part-time job in their local hospital canteen get a partial refund on their IHS?  What about a person on a spousal visa who works in a care home? More importantly, though, we strongly believe that the system of visa fees and surcharges is grossly exploitative to migrants, and that the IHS should be eliminated completely. 

Unis Resist Border Controls (URBC) has long sought to understand how the Home Office’s “hostile environment” policies are implemented in higher education and how these policies shape other aspects of university life for migrant staff and students.  As part of this, we conducted an online survey in late 2018 asking staff and students at UK Universities about hostile environment policies at their institution. Our research illuminates how the visa fees system exploits migrants, and why piecemeal gestures by the government or employers to reduce the fees for certain groups of migrants are bound to fail.   

One of our survey questions asked respondents “Does your university compensate international staff members for fees/expenses?” We received answers from home and international (both EU and non-EU) students and staff, including both academic and non-academic staff members.  Strikingly, a significant number of respondents (57 total, or 36%) did not know the answer. That is, they did not know if their university covered international staff costs (visa fees and immigrant health surcharge). Of the 110 who did know, more than half (52%) said that their universities did not offer any help with costs at all, whilst just over a third (34%) said that their employer helped with some but not all costs. These numbers do not necessarily correspond to the percentages of universities that help with costs, but they tell us a lot about what information staff and students have, and they provide us with an insight into what we believe are widespread perceptions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, UK nationals tend to be entirely unaware of the costs that migrants to the UK, including Tier 2 “skilled” workers, face in visa and NHS fees. Moreover, for those who have not had to pay such fees themselves, the question of whether or not employers cover these costs doesn’t seem to occur. A logical consequence of this uneven distribution of the “need to know” is that non-EU staff and students often find themselves met with disbelief, if not disinterest, when they ask for solidarity from UK and EU nationals.

We saw this kind of ignorance and disbelief at work in the media debates around whether NHS workers should be expected to pay the IHS.  Shock was repeatedly expressed that NHS workers had to pay the IHS; but the fact is migrant NHS and care workers have been paying these fees since they were first introduced in 2015. Most people in the UK, including, it would seem, in the UK media, only became aware of these fees because of the global pandemic, and because the government decided to draw attention to the existence of the IHS by announcing the increase.  Furthermore, while we are pleased when any migrant is granted a reprieve from these fees, selecting a ‘special’ group of migrants to exempt suggests a broader lack of understanding of, or indifference to, how extortionate immigration-related fees promote severe inequality.  We know from our own research that visas fees cast a pall over the lives of university staff and students, constraining their opportunities and choices. One of our survey respondents, a lecturer employed at a wealthy Scottish research university, noted: “Some people save for a flat, I save for immigration.” Staff and students who support non-EU dependants are charged additional visa and health fees; many end up in significant debt as a result, or must make heart-wrenching decisions around whether to leave their partners and/or children behind in their countries of origin. No one, regardless of what sector they work in, should be forced into such situations.

The economic hardship created by extortionate visa fees is especially critical during the current global pandemic. It has been widely reported that BAME people have been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19 in the UK; Black men are more than 4.6 times more likely to die from Covid than white men. This is due to health inequalities caused by structural racism. Many BAME people in the UK are citizens here, and therefore may not be affected by the visa fee system (unless, of course, they have family and friends who are migrants). But for BAME migrants, high visa fees create an additional level of economic hardship while they are already struggling with the dire health consequences of structural racism. Moreover, the very existence of high visa fees, and the general indifference to their impact, is a product of the well-documented racism of the UK immigration system.

Both in, and outside, of Higher Education, we need non-migrants to see this picture clearly and then to stand alongside their migrant neighbours, colleagues, and students — but not only out of altruism. The IHS can be understood as a government strategy to further monetize migration even as, under austerity, the wealthy are paying less tax, and the state is disinvesting from public services. Given the prevalence of anti-migrant feeling and policies in the UK, migrants are particularly vulnerable to this. However, UK citizens would be well advised to consider whether they might be next. As Jackie Wang describes in her book Carceral Capitalism, “government bodies… have the power to generate revenue not only through taxation, but through the police power and court system as well.” UK and EU nationals may well find that they are increasingly hit with service fees, including to use the NHS, as the government seeks to balance the books without requiring wealthy Tory donors to pay their taxes – after all, the UK remains one of the few countries where companies that evade taxes can still apply for financial assistance to deal with the fall-out from COVID-19.

The overall picture here is of a harmful financial landscape for migrants in the UK, one that can have deleterious effects on their health and general wellbeing.   It is not enough to abolish the IHS for migrants seen as ‘skilled’ or valuable, whether they work in the NHS, or in higher education. As Unis Resist Border Controls, we call on all HE institutions, as well as the UCU and other unions active in HE, to lobby the government to end the hostile environment and the debt, distress, and illness that it causes so many of those who live, work, and study in the UK. It is not enough to ask for special dispensation for university academics: we join our comrades in Docs Not Cops in fighting to end the IHS and all upfront charges for healthcare in the NHS. 

Note: One of the authors’ employers (the University of Sussex) did cover his Tier 2 visa costs, IHS, and the cost of an application for Indefinite Leave to Remain. This somewhat unusual outcome was based on policy at School level, while there is as of yet no policy across the university to guarantee that this is applied equitably for all staff regardless of School or department finance levels.