The UK’s hostile monitoring regime poisoned my PhD

Constant checks on their presence and bureaucratic curbs on their movement leave international students feeling like security threats, says Alexander Mack

十月 30, 2019
British border guard
Source: Getty (edited)

In September 2014, I arrived in the UK from Australia bubbling with excitement to start my PhD at Aberystwyth University. I had won a scholarship that covered my fees and living expenses, and my Tier 4 student visa was all arranged and in order.

What I did not anticipate was the monitoring regime that came with that visa. The university, on behalf of the Home Office, monitored my attendance in ways I found perplexing. Across the three years I lived in the UK, I was required to regularly “prove” that I was still residing in Aberystwyth and still completing my research studies. I felt prejudged as a risk to British society, whose safety needed to be constantly verified.

At the end of fortnightly supervision meetings (monthly during university breaks), my supervisor and I were required to sign an attendance form, which detailed my name, degree, year of attendance and a short summary of the meeting. In addition, I needed to “sign in” my attendance to the departmental front office once every month, including during breaks. And twice a year, I was required to attend a Tier 4 census, at which university compliance officials checked my student card, passport, visa, contact details, address of residence and student record.

To leave the UK for a family visit, Christmas holiday or academic conference, I had to follow an onerous set procedure. I needed to request an “authorised absence”, which required my supervisor to confirm that it would not adversely affect the completion of my PhD. He then had to forward my request to the institute manager and the university compliance office, which “authorised” my absence in the form of a letter that enabled me to re-enter the UK.

Nevertheless, each return to the UK after the Christmas break was a traumatic experience. I stood in long lines, only to reach a Border Force officer who often asked what the letter was for.

All of this bureaucratic monitoring of my physical presence and movements cast a long shadow over my experience in the UK. I was unable to catch up and maintain contact with friends in continental Europe because even a short flight required the permission of at least three people. Over time, those friendships have faded.

In its best moments, my PhD was a thrilling investigative adventure, but it was also a pact with loneliness. The challenge of investigating, collating, synthesising and writing a PhD thesis parallels the challenge of the lone composer writing a symphony. Doctoral research means wrestling with a range of emotional, intellectual and practical pressures. The monitoring regime of the Tier 4 visa further exacerbated these stresses.

There was a pervading feeling that my presence was unwelcome. I was captive to the completion of my PhD and the conditions of my visa. The UK became a golden cage, a place to fulfil my ambitions to become a scholar, where I enjoyed teaching undergraduate students and presenting my research, but where I also felt insecure and unsettled. This added to the challenges of developing a research topic, sources, refining an argument and crafting the symphony as a whole. The only way to overcome my insecure orientations was to focus on my writing and research, but this demanded exertions of mental fortitude that left me weary most days.

I was fortunate to have supportive supervisors. My primary supervisor ensured that his office remained a place of dialogue and learning, which helped me focus more on the research I wanted to do and less on the forms I had to fill in. I can imagine different circumstances, where one’s supervisor becomes one’s jailer, and the university a prison. The academic and administrative staff of my department seemed forced into coercive roles that they did not desire.

This transformation of supervisors and departments into immigration control agents also diverts the attention and energies of universities, distorting their commitment to conceptualise and disseminate research for the benefit of all of society.

The postscript to my story is that for my viva voce exam last November I needed to apply for a short-term study visa, following the advice from Aberystwyth’s compliance office, which duly wrote me a letter. On arrival in the UK, I was subjected to checks on whether my leave to remain was cancelled. The Border Force officer was unfamiliar with the reason I had returned.

Then, in July, when I briefly visited the UK, I was detained for 30 minutes and was once again subject to further checks to confirm that my leave to remain was cancelled and that I was not entering for further study.

Post-Brexit, it appears that European students will face similar experiences. Their physical presence and movements in the UK will become more permission-based, and they too will be left feeling guilty even though they haven’t committed any crime.

UK universities idealise and promote themselves as welcoming places to complete a PhD, but I experienced degrees of hostility and ignorance that are the chilling characteristics of a more closed society.

Alexander Mack is an independent researcher based in Brisbane, Australia. He was awarded his PhD from Aberystwyth University this year.

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Reader's comments (9)

Oh please at all the university institutions I attended and worked at attendance registration was key to the continuation of receiving grants from the public purse. It is normal here for close monitoring across all sections of school, college and university life. Where public money and trust is involved close auditing of all aspects of work undertaken is required. Really why do people who come from some other jurisdictions expect less monitoring.
What you are describing is symptomatic of a larger problem of over-bureaucratization that has infected most of all of UK academia. I acknowledge that your case is extreme, but in my experience of academia in four countries, the UK has become one the most over-managed University systems in the world. The inefficiency achieved in the name of "efficiency" is such a profound waste of time and very few question it.
I'm a native Brit who returned to University (after a career in industry) to research for PhD between 2010-2014. I too had to sign-in regularly (there was no discrimination by Nationality/Country of Origin) - once a week was expected, and you got chased if it wasn't fortnightly, i.e. at least once every two weeks. The sign-in and logging of supervisory meetings was a normal working practice back then - my PhD was in one of the Russell Group universities in the North of England. I empathise with the twice yearly Tier 4 census meetings, but suspect that a similar situation would occur for Brits over in Australia.
Following a few bureacratic processes or having to queue is hardly a traumatic experience in the grand scheme of things. I think you should balance the freedoms you will have as an academic against life in the real world where you have to clock in and out , have your toilet breaks monitored or fill in time sheets to account for every moment of your working existence and it may give you a bit of perspective.
I am amazed by the attempts to justify such an intolerable practice. Having to clock in and out as a condition of your employment is bad enough, but at least you have a paycheck each month to account for your troubles. PhD students actually pay for their "training" *and* create new knowledge which benefits the UK science and society. There is no good good reason why they should be treated in such a humiliating way and constantly feel the risk of being expelled from the country and denied a chance to complete their studies. This awful part of experience is never advertised in a glorious booklets saying in big words how much UK Universities care and thrive for international talent. The attempt to justify such a rude and unexpected policy is really quite shameful.
I think you will find that paying for your own training and contributing to society doesn't only apply to PhD students. You missed the point I was making, I wasn't trying to justify these practices, I was saying that they need to be balanced against other working practices which can be significantly worse. To compare having to have a degree of accountability when studying internationally to the hardships faced by people working minimum wage jobs in horrible conditions with no hope of a future(or no job at all) is quite grotesque.
Monitoring attendance has been a requirement since Tier 4 was introduced back in 2009 under Labour. It's not a recent thing but has been attached to the "hostile environment" tag line. The other side to monitoring is engagement and making sure that a student is progressing as expected. A PhD student should be having regular meetings with their supervisors and it should be logged, as there are other issues that this would contribute to e.g. whether a person should be upgraded or if a person appeals their result based on a lack of interaction with the supervisor. At my institution, all students are monitored the same way to ensure they are progressing as expected. There's additional checks for Tier 4 students, but that's done in the background and students only need to come in if there's an issue. Unfortunately, to have a Tier 4 sponsor licence these checks have to be done. The outcome of not doing them is potentially not to have the ability to recruit international students or international staff. Yes, it may be onerous and uncomfortable for people to have to do, going against their personal beliefs. However, the impact of not doing these checks would be far-reaching and it would help if that was more widely realised by the wider community at institutions. We're doing these checks to protect our students' ability to get a UK education and enable academics to keep doing their jobs. If those of us working in immigration at universities didn't do these checks and we lost our sponsor licence (which would probably close my institution), I'm sure those who are saying it's a sign of bureaucracy or we shouldn't be doing this would be quick to point the finger and say that administration hadn't done their job properly and now they can't continue working on their research at their chosen university.
At my university every PhD student is expected to meet with their Director of Studies every 2 weeks, whether UK/EU or international. All-superivors meetings need to take place every 3 months minimum. There is no difference in treatment between UK/EU and international PhD students on a Tier 4 Visa. If your Visa depends on you actually being in the UK to do a PhD, I don't see why there shouldn't be regular checks. When I lived abroad on a working Visa I also had to undergo checks to confirm I was actually there doing what I was supposed to be doing. No special treatment for you. Sorry.
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