Universities must stop policing and surveilling international PGRs

From controlling travel to failing to provide adequate support, universities’ treatment of international postgrads is harming the research community and the HE sector


Newcastle University
2 Nov 2022
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Universities are policing and surveilling international PGRs

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It is no secret that the adjustment required for international students to settle in at university is even greater than their local peers. This underscores the need for in-depth examination of how universities treat international students and applicants, as the underlying tensions and biases (bordering, monitoring and othering) have serious material consequences, particularly in the wake of Covid-19.

International postgraduate students, who represent an enormous source of economic capital (higher tuition fees) and intellectual capital (academic output), have always had to navigate a university system that functions as a “soft border”, or extension/arm of the state, and which polices them – even identifying students who are most likely to harbour “extreme” views.

Electronic forms of monitoring and surveillance, including biometric data and racialised police registration, have become the norm for universities, which can foster an intimidating environment and create hierarchies between home and international students. Covid-19 has only exacerbated these effects, all while international postgraduate researchers (PGRs) must deal with the same struggles as home students.

Earlier this year, we conducted interviews on the experiences of travel and research with international PGRs in humanities and social science disciplines at Newcastle University and found that the university plays an active role, akin to a selectively permeable membrane, with respect to this policing. Operating on behalf of the larger organism (the state), the university monitors who is allowed to enter a country’s borders, on what terms and in what capacity in order to maintain a particular status quo – one of economic accumulation and border maintenance. International PGRs find that their entry into and navigation of the university is made easier (or harder) based on factors including finances and country of origin.

International PGRs relayed to us complicated experiences of visas, travel and borders, both before and after the height of Covid-19. Travel visas, such as for fieldwork, are a persistent problem, with inflexibility and restrictions causing stress and anxiety. For example, Natalie, who has what is seen as a “strong” passport, expressed surprise at how “tragically uneven” visa regimes are. Mirroring this, Zain expressed frustration at the stresses of having a passport that is frequently rejected from visa applications (for example, to the Schengen zone and the US), stating that inequalities and extensive documentation requirements restrict movement and create a fear of these systems (including of deportation).

University systems that facilitate travel (or impede it) often have little understanding of these concerns, which creates yet more obstacles for international PGRs. These bordering techniques, alongside Covid-19, serve to restrict the access these PGRs have to scholarly communities, including accessing conferences, networking and fieldwork.

Student visas for residency were also a concern for international PGRs – especially given Covid-related delays to research projects. For those who began their studies before Covid but are yet to finish, there have been significant difficulties in both finding information about how to extend visas as well as actually securing an extension. Approval for visa extensions is needed from various sources within the university, as well as government approval; the necessity of both demonstrates the cooperation between state and university in policing international student presence.

We found that the university had little understanding of or sympathy for the plight of international PGRs surrounding health and well-being, demonstrating how visa and health-related issues intersect. Advice given by the university was consistently formulaic and unhelpful with respect to mental health, and advice given for visa issues involved flights to home countries. Effective support appeared to often be dependent on individual supervisors – and thus contingent on their capacity or knowledge to provide such support.

In acting as a selectively permeable membrane, the university plays a key role in controlling the movement of international students. First, the university must provide a “certificate of acceptance of study” for the student to physically travel to their destination. Students must complete passport checks at the university, with the in-person requirement seeming “ridiculous” to Rachel, who had difficulty travelling to the university for the sole purpose of completing this registration. Document delays would occasionally wreak havoc on organising visas and travel, with Rachel almost being forced to defer studies and lose a semester of pre-paid rent. Upon arrival, some (but not all) international students must register at a police station, creating a tiered, racialised hierarchy of international students through criminalisation.

Covid-19 exacerbated the already precarious position of several of the PGRs interviewed – particularly those without external funding. Even before student visas are granted, students must pay upfront for the costs of visas, NHS care and travel, as well as pass affordability checks (for self-funded students). The university did not always make clear that these costs existed (let alone provide support for them), causing stress and feelings of exploitation and non-belonging.

As Rachel remarked: “When they’re, like, we welcome you, but only if you like pay us [lots] of money…I’m not sure that’s the most welcoming.” Accommodation arrangements also came with little guidance, and it was suggested that university accommodation provision catered only for those with sufficient funds.

Access to funds also determined what kind of research students were able to do, after considering potential visa application fees, travel, costs associated with Covid-19 and more. Because of both funding constraints and Covid-19 delays, Natalie noted: “I need to think long and hard on how to make [fieldwork] affordable. Because even if I do it in the next academic year, where new funding is available, there’s still all these restrictive policies and [the university’s travel agent]…that would make it extremely unaffordable for me to do it, even though I kind of need to.”

These feelings and experiences of precarity, surveillance and non-belonging are a product of an institutional culture that views international postgraduate students as risks to manage – but ones that are necessary for (economically) reproductive reasons. This has a dual consequence of instrumentalising students while co-producing a research culture stripped of creativity and ambition.

This intellectual impoverishment affects the future careers of international students vis-à-vis skills and training, whether or not they remain in the UK, and how they might contribute to building a robust research culture. Overall, the students we interviewed, while greatly impacted by the above issues, were dedicated to producing inspired, high-quality research. The expertise and experiences of these students is essential in fostering a vigorous research culture and ensuring that their work filters upwards to relevant institutions.

Possible solutions, as they stand, require validating the expertise and value of international students in the first instance, while also engaging in practices of knowledge-based and material transformation. Putting a stop to exorbitant international fees, to the surveillance and policing of racialised students, allowing for more safe work and making research funding and robust support available to all students, regardless of nationality, will make a real material difference.

On a more substantive level, this research makes it clear that there are larger structural and historical issues that need to be addressed. This includes expanding relations of care and responsibility to form more just pedagogies – while keeping in mind that universities are institutions born out of colonisation and thus retain many of its neoliberal and racialising logics. For decolonisation to occur, as universities proclaim to desire, decolonial practices needs to be materially enacted – and yet, as exemplified by how they treat some of their most vulnerable students, it is clear they have a long way to go.

Tina Sikka is reader in technoscience and intersectional justice at the School of Arts and Cultures, Newcastle University, UK.
Heather Proctor is a PGR student in media, culture and heritage, at the School of Arts and Cultures, Newcastle University, UK.

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