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.