The Hostile Environment Policy has extended the border into UK universities

The ‘hostile environment policy’  is the anti-migrant policy announced by then-Home Secretary Theresa May in 2012, though effectively in place for years previously. The policy extends border policing into universities, healthcare, schools, and other sectors, forcing workers in those sectors to enforce immigration policy. In universities, the Home Office issues directives about its policies toward international staff and students, and university management understand these directives as ‘statutory duties’ with which they must ‘comply’. Student records offices and HR departments then develop local policies and present them to staff and students as if they were created by the Home Office. These local policies vary widely from university to university and even from department to department, and often academic staff members are unaware whether and how the Home Office is using the data they are reporting on themselves and collecting on their students. Forms of border controls in universities include regular passport checks, international staff and students having to report their exact whereabouts daily or weekly, and swipe cards for international students.

UK Universities are International

Despite the hostile environment policy, UK universities continue to recruit high numbers of students and staff at all levels. In 2016/17 there were 442,000 overseas students studying at UK universities; 19% of the total student population, 55% of full-time taught postgraduates and 50% of full-time research degree students. 135,000 were from the EU and 307,000 from elsewhere. New overseas entrants to UK universities peaked at 238,000 in 2011/12 and, as a consequence of the Hostile Environment policy, fell by 10,000 in 2012/13, and have remained relatively stable since. However, the UK remains the second most popular destination for international students, after the United States. When it comes to academic staff, 29% of those working in British universities are not British, with 16.9% coming from EU countries and 12.1% from non-EU countries. Among research-only staff (typically postdoctoral researchers), 47% are from overseas.

UK Universities are built from the spoils of slavery and empire

It’s more than just coincidence, or accident, that UK universities have more resources than those in most of the rest of the world. Centuries of violence and forced labour imposed on Asia, Africa, and the Americas made Britain’s standard of living as high as it is. Slave labour financed the construction of the Codrington Library at All Souls College at Oxford in 1710, as well as the founding of Owens College (which would become the University of Manchester) in 1846. Likewise in the postwar period, the expansion of the university depended on the economic growth and welfare-state expansion that was itself an outgrowth of the imperial (and then the Commonwealth) global-economic order.

Currently, US global military dominance, supported by Britain, keeps in place a precarious but still violent global-economic system controlled by wealthy countries, corporations, and their global governance proxies. For all the impact of austerity, this system continues to benefit the upper echelons of our education system. It also makes migration, and the ability to access resources in the UK and send money home, economically necessary for many. At the same time, these militaries wreak havoc on the world, as the disastrous situations in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Gaza, Afghanistan, and elsewhere remind us. This means that despite the hostile environment and the uncertain Brexit economy, international students from many locations will continue to seek education, safety, and economic opportunity in the UK.