An Orwellian nightmare

May 28, 2009

Ann Singleton et al are to be congratulated on their principled stance on the UK Border Agency's (UKBA) new regulations ("We won't collude with efforts to use the academy to police immigration", 7 May). However, their arguments misidentify the real issues, and fail to grasp how badly the sector appears to have shot itself in the foot in its negotiations with the Home Office over the new points-based immigration system.

Yes, universities are now being asked to monitor the attendance of Tier 4 visa-holding non-European Union students. This, however, is no more than any sponsoring employer across the UK has to do, and complaints about the "liberal ethos" of universities sound precious. But what is more onerous is the requirement that HE institutions monitor the attendance of Tier 4 overseas students for every lecture, seminar, tutorial, research progress meeting and welfare session they attend, and every essay, draft and dissertation they submit, or risk losing their institutional visa licence.

This is a dark dawn for the quality of university life and a dramatic departure from the UKBA's standard practice. No employers across the UK are being required to undertake the kind of fine-grained oversight demanded of universities. Nor would they accept it. Imagine overseas workers at a factory being required not just to clock in and out at the main gate, but at every staff meeting, workshop, admin office and factory floor they visit, and a record kept of every major piece of work they do. Any workplace with overseas workers would grind to a complete halt; and so shall we.

How did this happen? Why is the higher education sector being singled out for such draconian treatment? The clue here is in the detail. The UKBA's website is very clear. It says that similar monitoring arrangements will not be required of schools and further education colleges, because they keep a daily register. The university sector, by arguing that it was special and didn't require students to sign daily registers or use central monitoring stations, brought an infinitely heavier regime down on our collective heads.

Rather than just getting Tier 4 students to sign up at central monitoring stations on campus for the days they are there - an arrangement which would satisfy the UKBA's monitoring needs for employers and FE students, and is not a breach of the Race Relations Act - we've ended up with an Orwellian nightmare that will mire academics and the UKBA in mountains of useless and expensive information, as well as putting many UK students off higher education.

Given the dramatic loss in income that universities anticipate as a consequence of the huge hike in visa fees and the UKBA's quite unrealistic demands, these may well be costs that the sector is unable to bear.

Martin Mills, University of Aberdeen.

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