What’s wrong with the way international students are currently treated in the UK?

International students are put in an untenable bind by the combination of the neoliberal, profit-seeking university system and the xenophobic hostile environment. Universities often treat them as financial assets to the universities: they are recruited heavily because of the profits they bring to universities that can no longer rely on steady revenue streams from either state block grants or ‘home’ student fees. However, they are often given inadequate support once they arrive, and sometimes they are even recruited into private, for-profit university affiliates that are allowed to attach their name to a university without offering the level of services for students that the university does. International students are then treated in the press and the home office as either thieves of UK jobs (if they succeed) or drains on the system who can be easily deported (if they falter or displease their supervisors).

How do borders kill knowledge?

Scholars from different places bring different perspectives and different expertise to texts, topics, and problems. No phenomenon is purely national, so there’s no reason our study of histories, ideas, social systems, or anything else should be. Apart from idealistic and practical reasons why it makes sense to share research and knowledge across borders, there is the issue of global unequal resource distribution, which is a result of the historical and ongoing plunder by wealthy countries of the global South, and of global economic conditions that often mean people must leave the country where they are born. Students and scholars, given the opportunity, will often seek out universities with more resources where they can learn and study.

Although borders kill knowledge in every instance, we can also point to especially egregious moments in the UK where the recent intensification of the hostile environment has denied scholars (and thus all of us) the benefits that would have come from thinking together. Not coincidentally, this kind of denial seems to happen most frequently to scholars of African, Asian, and Latin American origin. At the 2017 conference of the African Studies Association of the UK, to take just one example, five scholars invited to present at the University of Cambridge who all secured the requisite documentation were denied entry by the Home Office–to add sexist insult to racist injury, legal scholar Christine Ejura Attah was denied her visa to enter the UK because her husband was traveling to the same conference.

Are you working to get international students exempted from UK migration targets?

We don’t believe international students are an especially deserving class of migrants. While Universities UK has lobbied (unsuccessfully, so far) for international students to be excluded from migration targets, arguing that they bring benefits to the country that other migrants do not, we dispute this framework. Instead, we recognise the stark global injustices that have allowed the UK to accumulate educational resources, and we assert that all people have the right to survival, shelter, and education. Borders kill knowledge, but they also kill people, and they also damage and destroy all kinds of other important collaborative endeavors. We recognise that our struggle against borders in the university system is part of the larger struggle against borders everywhere.

Aren’t some border controls necessary?

We don’t think so. We believe all people should be able to travel and move freely and access basic services (food, housing, shelter, education), regardless of where they were born or how much money they have. In addition to making these arbitrary distinctions as to who is worthy of care and sustenance, the countries now walling themselves off in order to hoard resources from migrants and refugees (US, UK, Israel, etc) have created the conditions of war and economic deprivation that impel migrants and refugees to leave their homes in the first place.

But isn’t the surveillance I perform part of my duty of care to students? Isn’t it in their best interests?

The problem is that the Home Office is both disorganised and brutal in their treatment of migrants. While you may report the whereabouts of an international student to the Home Office out of a sincere sense of your duty of care, the Home Office is more interested in ‘cracking down’ on international students.  When you are asked to report to the home office on international students and staff, to show passports for speaking engagements or to check in with local police, be aware that it is part of a larger coordinated effort to make migrants in the UK feel unwelcome and afraid.

But what about international students whose English is not good?

When universities recruit international students, they make a commitment to educate them. One of the egregious things about the convergence of the neoliberal university and the hostile environment has been that universities have pushed to recruit more international students in order to make up for perceived or anticipated budget shortfalls, without ever discussing with the academic staff who will be teaching the students what are often dramatic changes to the composition of the student body. Should tutors perhaps be trained in teaching writing to English language learners? What would adequate support for international students look like? Should more translation services be available? Since academics have not had these conversations within universities, a combination of the racism of the hostile environment and neoliberal ideas of personal responsibility leads some tutors to blame students for not learning English rather than considering how universities might better be able to support those students in their academic goals. This dynamic, by which institutions refuse to migrants and then blame them for the result, exists throughout the UK, as the government exhorts migrants to learn English quickly while cutting funding for classes so that waiting lists run between two and three years.

I’m a UK citizen. Why should I care about migrants?

Apart from any compulsion you might have to empathy or solidarity, one thing the government’s policies in the past few years demonstrate starkly is that different people can inhabit the categories of ‘migrant’ and ‘undocumented migrant’ from one day to the next. The Windrush generation were deprived by the government of their UK citizenship and the accompanying rights, often with devastating consequences, and if Brexit happens, EU citizens in the UK will be the next group to lose significant rights and freedoms. ‘Legal’ migrants in the UK most follow a gargantuan list of rules, the list of which has more than doubled in length since 2010, with 5700 new changes added. When migrants are being detained and deported over a failure to follow this impossibly vast and ever-changing set of regulations, we should all be worried that we or people we care about will suddenly fall on the wrong side of one of these draconian restrictions.

I’m not an academic or a student. Why should I care about universities?

URBC believe strongly in free education: that everyone should have access to universities and the knowledge therein. However, even if you have no desire to be part of a university system, the work done in universities will most likely affect your life, whether through interacting with former students or through encountering something made in universities, whether useful (museum exhibits, medicines), or harmful (weapons). We all have a stake in making our universities welcoming and intellectually useful places.

I’m appalled. How can I help?

Many ways! Invite us to facilitate a resistance workshop at your university and/or UCU chapter.

If you are in the UCU, pass our motion in your branch meetings pledging to support
Send us information concerning how the hostile environment operates at your university at unisresistbordercontrols@gmail.com, follow us on social media, join our meetings (in person or remotely). And look out for our upcoming campaigns.