Cry 'foul' and give May the yellow card

March 14, 2013

In his critique of the sector’s approach to student visa policy (“In the twilight zone”, 21 February), Simeon Underwood suggests that the National Union of Students is “inside the [government] tent” because students have been put “at the heart of the system”, and that “wild-eyed radical leaders of the past, such as Jack Straw and Stephen Twigg, have been replaced by decent young men in suits”. Now, although I plead guilty to occasionally wearing a suit and I strive to be decent, I fear that Underwood has fallen for government rhetoric and lost sight of the reality.

The charge that we have “helped the government in developing some of its central policies” seems disingenuous, not least in relation to the “students as consumers” agenda my colleagues and I have robustly criticised. This year, the NUS has focused on more proactive campaigns for international students precisely because the government has refused to listen: if you hail from abroad, you remain far from the heart of the system.

The NUS has challenged unacceptable visa-processing delays; successfully intervened in the High Court to defend students against the impact of the UK Border Agency’s decision to revoke London Metropolitan University’s highly trusted sponsor status; and achieved small but significant victories on attendance monitoring by forcing the UKBA to clarify that it does not expect international students to be singled out.

We have also worked with the UK Council for International Student Affairs, Universities UK and the Institute of Directors to make the case for overseas students to be removed from the net migration statistics, buoyed by cross-party support from stalwart MPs such as Labour’s Paul Blomfield and the Conservatives’ Nadhim Zahawi: indeed, we have gained backing from no fewer than five select committees. It is clear that we have won the argument with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, too, but the remaining roadblock is the Home Office.

It is not just piecemeal lobbying in air-conditioned rooms that occupies us - and nor would that solve all our problems. We have also told the stories of human misery too often suppressed by an immigration system that dehumanises overseas students, collecting enough case studies in the past 12 months to write a fairly large book. This is why we have launched a campaign urging supporters to “Show the Home Office the Yellow Card”.

It is clear that the current approach to international students is doing huge damage to the sector, the economy and our global reputation, but crucially also to students’ lives. Speeding up visa processing is no magic bullet in itself, particularly when, in the context of heavily constrained budgets and overworked staff, reprioritisation would, ceteris paribus, lead to delays in processing urgent asylum applications. It would also fail to deal with the overarching problem: the government’s treatment of international students. To that end, I would urge Underwood and everyone who disagrees with the way such students are being treated to join us in calling “foul”. Target criticism where it is deserved: show Theresa May the yellow card.

Daniel Stevens
International students officer

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