Source: James Fryer
What does the UK achieve by removing a China scholar who is willing to work with UK and Chinese policymakers to enhance their cooperation?
UK higher education has reached a critical moment. Under current immigration rules, universities can no longer guarantee a permanent position for international experts, even when offering permanent contracts – a fact that has serious implications for the health of its academy.
As far as the Home Office is concerned, the immigration status of those on the Tier 2 migrant visa is as “precarious as it is temporary”. When they come to this country, the government agency states, “any private life they have established here should be given little weight…given their precarious immigration status”.
Because of this policy, I am now forced to quit my permanent position at the University of Nottingham after six and a half years of dedication and contribution to the university and to the wider policy and scholarly communities. My family and I will be removed from this country as of next Sunday.
I took up a prestigious five-year Research Councils UK research fellowship in September 2008 to study China’s peacekeeping operations and humanitarian assistance. The fellowship culminates in an offer of a permanent lectureship, and the university and I signed a contract to that effect in 2008. The fellowship stipulated that I spend up to 100 per cent of my time on research in the first two years. My research required me to do fieldwork in China and in developing regions over which China exerts some influence, such as Africa and Southeast Asia; to present papers at academic and policymaker conferences worldwide; and to take up international visiting fellowships. With the university’s full approval and with RCUK (in other words, UK government) funding, I spent 270 days outside the UK conducting research from March 2009 to March 2010, and 202 days from March 2010 to March 2011. The findings and presentations deriving from all my overseas work were published in prestigious journals and in scholarly books.
In July last year, my application for indefinite leave to remain was refused. The Home Office letter states that this is because of “absences from the UK for more than 180 days” in each of the two periods.
“You have provided a letter from your employer (the University of Nottingham) dated 11/3/2014 which states that you are required to travel around the world for meetings and conferences as part of your duties as an RCUK fellow,” the Home Office says. “The letter also states that the dates you were outside the United Kingdom were all with University approval. However, it is not believed that any of the periods of absence can be considered to have been in any way compelling or compassionate, which would need to be established to enable discretion to be applied.”
Since I received this letter, my professional and personal life has been extremely difficult. To prepare my appeal against the decision, I had to drop all research. Concerned colleagues and professionals – including those from the United Nations, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, thinktanks, the vice-chancellor and other senior colleagues of my university, top academics in various fields including China studies, and local MP Anna Soubry – sent supporting letters to the tribunal and to the Home Office. I emailed my appeal bundle (some 300 pages) to the tribunal as directed, but it was “lost” three times. I consulted with solicitors and hired a barrister. Meanwhile, I continued with normal duties, including teaching and administrative work, despite the demands of the appeal process on my time. I managed by working sometimes through the night or up to 18 hours a day. I was invited to a number of international conferences, but I had to decline because my family’s passports had been retained by the Home Office as part of the appeal process from March 2014. To prepare for the worst-case scenario of deportation, I also had to apply for jobs outside the UK. The only thing that kept me going was the generous support and encouragement I received from my family, friends and colleagues.
I won the appeal on 11 December last year. Judge T. R. P. Hollingworth stated in his decision that “[Dr Hirono] is making an immense contribution to the fabric of this country. I consider that [her] continuing residence in the United Kingdom ultimately benefits the economic wellbeing of the country.” He also wrote: “It is in my view arguable that the vast majority of the Appellant’s absences from the United Kingdom could be seen as ‘compelling’ because all were at a time when she was acting in accordance with her professional obligations to her University employer.” Nevertheless, the Home Office further appealed against this ruling on 29 December 2014, stating that “the Tribunal have failed to identify why the appellant’s circumstances are…compelling circumstances.”
There are strong reasons why the Home Office’s decision to remove us is indefensible.
First, as the judge states, my absences were for compelling reasons. Almost all my time outside the UK in those two years was related to an approved international research agenda. The trips were crucial to gaining a global perspective on a range of matters related to China’s international relations efforts. I was travelling to gain insights into global issues of central concern to the UK.
Second, the 180-day rule has been applied retrospectively to my case and unfairly. I did not break or breach visa rules, as some media reports have misleadingly suggested. There was an immigration policy change in 2012, after my visits overseas. Before the change, I planned to extend my migrant visa, and the 180-day absence rule did not apply. But in 2012 the maximum period of extension became six years, so I had no option but to seek indefinite leave to remain. Under the earlier rules, work-related absences were regarded as “compelling”; but after 2012 this was no longer to be the case. Where in any of this is there natural justice?
Third, my work has significant implications for the University of Nottingham, the UK government and the community of international scholars. A policy recommendation paper on UK-China cooperation, which I wrote with a colleague from the Royal United Services Institute, has been uploaded by the UK government and appears on the government’s website, for example. The UK needs to enhance its understanding of China – a country that presents one of the most important UK foreign policy challenges of the 21st century. What does the UK achieve by removing a China scholar who is willing to work with UK and Chinese policymakers to enhance their cooperation? Surely it is shooting itself in the foot.
Fourth, the decision has had a significant and adverse impact on my family and finances, which represents a contravention of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (right to respect for private and family life), as the judge admitted in my appeal. For the past six and a half years I have enjoyed working at the University of Nottingham and with the wider UK academic community, both of which have nurtured me as a scholar. Knowing that I had followed all the visa regulations (in accordance with the rules extant at the time), had fully and professionally discharged my duty as a research fellow, and had already signed a permanent contract, my Australian husband joined me two years ago, sacrificing his career at the Department of Defence in Australia and suspending his own PhD programme at the Australian National University. We bought a house in Beeston two years ago, and our son Tada was born in 2013 in Nottingham. Our life in the UK has been severed suddenly because of an inflexible and retrospective application of immigration rules to our case.
But this is not just my problem. The UK’s immigration policy and attitudes to migrants reduce the lives of foreign experts who contribute to the UK to nothing more than a set of immigration statistics. In an effort to meet political and statistical targets, the Home Office is in breach of natural justice. If an offer of a permanent post at a university in the UK is at best “precarious” and cannot guarantee stability and control over one’s professional and private life, top academics will be increasingly reluctant to come to the UK, jeopardising any effort to maintain the global relevance of its academy.