Universities must not ride the wave of xenophobia

Universities must not ride the wave of xenophobia


Written by: Scott Poynting, Martin Ralph, Ann Singleton, Steve Tombs, Dave Whyte

We reproduce below a statement by a number of UK-based academics.

‘We called for labour power’, playwright Max Frisch once said, ‘and human beings came’. The British government has called for higher education fees, and is discomforted by the actual arrival of non-EU students along with their overseas students’ fees. Apparently, it cannot tell the difference between overseas students and ‘illegal’ (undocumented or semi-documented) immigrants or even terrorists, so it suspects them of being one or the other unless they prove otherwise. The proof must be continual, in case they lapse, or ulterior motives are allowed to emerge.

Two years ago, in the backlash of paranoia after the failed London and Glasgow car-bomb attacks, the Telegraph dutifully duplicated a Tory press release: there was a ‘Student visa loophole’, rendering ‘Mr Brown’s overall strategies against terrorism … “fatally flawed”‘. The anti-terrorism ‘crackdown’ was ‘in danger of being undermined by a failure to monitor immigrants’ [1]. In a bidding war to be tough on terrorism, the crudest of xenophobic policies are quickly laundered and adopted across the political spectrum.

By April 2009, the Labour government had introduced its new ‘Tier 4’ of the Points Based Immigration System, whereby students from outside the EU or Switzerland must have their attendance and progress monitored by their educational institutions, and be reported to the UK Border Agency (UKBA) for any repeated absences. This is despite their already significantly proven commitment, usually at great cost to their families, since prospective students must have their fees for the first year deposited up front in a bank account in their name, plus £600 per month in living allowance plus £400 per month living allowance for each dependant. Educational institutions must be licensed by the UKBA in order to admit students from outside the EU, which universities are very keen to do, since they want the fees. Institutions failing to police these and other immigration regulations can have their licences downgraded or withdrawn. Moreover, all such overseas students are being forced to acquire biometric identity cards, of the sort that has been roundly rejected for the rest of the population. Educational institutions must keep on file the information on these cards.

The media announced the new visa fees and proof of savings required of non-EU students in the context of a racialised moral panic that migrant workers were a drain on the economy through their extra demand on housing stocks, health and education services and the resources of local councils – even though a recent London School of Economics study, commissioned by the London mayor, Boris Johnson, has calculated that ‘An amnesty for an estimated 618,000 ­illegal immigrants in Britain would provide a £3bn boost to the economy’ [2]. Ideology about ‘British jobs for British workers’, propagated by the prime minister and the British National Party alike, continues to circulate within the maelstrom of xenophobia. Coincidentally, perhaps, at this very time new legal requirements also came into effect for educational institutions with employees from non-EU countries. Their passport data and visas must be kept on file by their employers, and eventually, they, too, must hold biometric identity cards. It may be that employers, in order not to be seen to discriminate, are demanding copies of passports and the like of all new employees, whether or not they are British nationals, but there is no mistaking the intent of the provisions.

The significance of this ‘surveillance creep’ has not been lost on the University and College Union (UCU), whose members will be required by their employers to give effect to the new regulations, and are already being directed and trained to do so. The union rightly reasons that it is not the job of workers in universities, for example, to become de facto agents of the UKBA [3]. Further, it is inimical to the functions and core values of higher education, and those who teach there, to be spying and reporting on their students. These measures, if implemented, would betray the trust and destroy the openness upon which academic processes and the ethics of the university depend. They are immoral. Nor should university staff be performing mini-Stasi roles for the immigration authorities in filing and submitting personal information about their colleagues from abroad: the data collection and functions of immigration authorities are not the rightful province of universities, nor are observing and reporting their attendance patterns and compliance with immigration requirements.

Even if there were a terrorist threat of the sort that is imagined, universities are not set up for a policing function and nor should they be. Forcing them to conduct surveillance would be an inefficient measure. ‘Terrorist’ students could adopt the simple precaution of attending classes. Moreover, if there has been a real problem with ‘bogus colleges’ and the exploitation of their students, this has been in large part caused by a privatising of education and the consequent marketing opportunities for cynical operators. It will not be remedied by bullying genuine educational institutions into harassing their students. If vulnerable students are being exploited in the labour market, then again the problem and the remedy lie there, and not in the institutions in which they are enrolled to study.

If the surveillance measures are to be implemented in universities, they can only be practically effected (in the case of the attendance records) through directing university staff to single out certain categories of students to be checked up and reported upon in a highly discriminatory manner. These staff have a legal right and a moral duty to decline these surveillance tasks. Further, the new controls and the ethos generated by recently introduced requirements are likely to run contrary to the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s widening participation agenda of ‘ensuring equal opportunity for … all ethnic groups’ [4], even if this is not designed with non-EU students in mind.

Accordingly, the University and College Union’s Congress overwhelmingly carried a resolution on 29 May that:

‘The UCU immediately launch a campaign of non-compliance with all such policing and surveillance duties (including recording details from foreign national students, supplying personal details to other institutions in our capacity as external examiners, assessors and lecturers, and refusal to request such details on behalf of our own institutions from external examiners, assessors and lecturers). The UCU will give unqualified support to any member disciplined or victimised as a result of this campaign’.

These are strong words and bespeak a firm stand. Yet in these days of Thatcherised industrial relations, union leaderships are timorous of anything with the whiff of illegality. (So much for our history!) Already four days before the Congress, UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt was pre-emptively recoiling from this position: ‘Members need to be clear that these duties are part of a legal obligation on universities, and that the union’s protection of members cannot extend to endorsing a breach of the law relating to the points-based system, or defending members who do so’ [5]. The leadership of the union’s forerunner already has a record of deferring to lawyers and ceding its democratic decision-making in the matter of the academic boycott of Israel in 2005. It will therefore require a good deal of pressure from the rank and file, from whence this current resolution came, to hold the leadership to the Congress’s non-compliance decision.

This democratic pressure must be applied. Otherwise, it starts with spying on our students, and very easily leads to some being incarcerated, while the rest – academics and students alike – learn some obvious, unpleasant, and not unprecedented lessons.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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