Immigration official at Stansted Airport: “How old are you?”
Immigration official: “So you are telling me that you will graduate from this course at the age of 30, having never held full-time or valuable employment?”
Me: “I hope to be a professor.”
Immigration official: “I’m sure you do. I said ‘valuable’ employment. You are 25. You are an adult, not a child. School is where we put children.”
This was the final, humiliating, exchange I had with the border guards before being led away to detention.
To set the scene: I am an American citizen. I was entering the UK last month to visit friends and meet with potential doctoral supervisors. I am a 2015 master’s graduate of the University of Oxford, and I remained faithful to all terms of my student visa throughout my original stay in the UK.
As an American, I do not require a visa to enter the UK for tourism, nor do I need one to attend “a conference, meeting, or training”.
These were the purposes of my visit, yet I was first stopped on account of not possessing formal letters of invitation for interview by the universities (impossible, as I wasn’t actually being interviewed, merely attending an informal meeting).
My fate was sealed, however, when Border Force discovered that I did not have £19,000 currently in my bank account to pay for a full year of study here. Yes, I was detained on account of having insufficient personal funds to pay for a course that I hadn’t even been accepted into.
Allow me to explain what eight hours in airport detention are like. To begin with, you spend the first four hours alone in a small room.
In the moments before your phone is confiscated, you have time to send two texts. First to your best friend, letting her know that you’ve run into some trouble and might not make it over to hers tonight so don’t worry about staying up (knowing full well that this will worry her into staying up all night).
Next, to your mother, but you only have the chance to say, “I think I’m being deported.” She will, of course, spend the next many hours in a panic halfway across the world as you continue to not answer her incoming texts or calls.
Just before midnight, you go to a new room where you get your fingerprints and an absolutely charming mugshot taken.
Your fingerprints are now on file for a decade. You try to point out that the UK already has your fingerprints – you willingly surrendered them two years ago as part of the conditions of your student visa.
The next hours are spent in a communal holding cell. There aren’t gender-separated cells, so you decide that the best course of action is to stay awake – despite the watchful eyes of the staff through the window, you’re not entirely trustful of the male detainee in here making kissing faces at you.
At 2.45am – after you’ve waited for nearly seven hours – they begin the interview process. Of course, they query your travel history – comprehensively. You are asked to explain the purposes of 28 passport pages worth of international trips, and how they were, in every case, paid for. In chronological order. And to explain what exactly you think you’re doing in this country now.
Expect many questions about your research and your entire academic history. It’s helpful to consider this – a layperson-friendly research explanation when sleep-deprived, incredibly stressed and rather hungry – as great practice for the future: you will be unflappable when facing conference or lecture audiences.
From the very start of my airport detention adventure, it was clear that at play was both a lack of understanding as to how the postgraduate education system works and little prospect of viewing students (or potential students) and academics as desirable immigrants.
The current blanket crackdown on overall immigration numbers is having an impact across the student spectrum. From Paul Hamilton, the Shakespeare scholar arrested at his home, to the vast numbers of my international student friends facing unprecedented and increasing levels of scrutiny upon each subsequent entry, students are feeling the pressure.
And, what’s more, these policies present a deterrent to those merely expressing interest in studying in the UK. I can only imagine the implications that this short-sighted approach to cutting immigration numbers will have on the UK’s ability to remain a leading producer of research and knowledge.
Somewhere along the line, someone realised that I couldn’t be held for not having the finances for a course that I’m not even in.
And so, all facts pertaining to my case and reasons for being in the country having checked out, I was finally released from custody at 4.01am into the warm and welcoming glow of Stansted arrivals.
Sabine Parrish is the associate editor of Standart Magazine. Home Office permitting, she hopes to complete an anthropology PhD in the UK.