A call to boycott new immigration rules divided delegates at a fringe meeting at the University and College Union’s annual congress this week.
A vote calling for the union to launch a “campaign of non-compliance” with the new points-based system will be heard later today, Friday 29 May.
The rules require universities to report absent foreign students to the UK Border Agency or risk losing their licence to accept them.
Jim Guild, a representative of the University of Sussex UCU branch, said that the union could not collectively refuse to monitor students without declaring a dispute and that it was unclear whether the rules counted as an employment issue for the purposes of trade union action. “The union can’t protect members who participate in an act of boycott,” he added.
But he stressed that employers were as concerned by the new system as staff. Universities fear that students will be deterred from applying to UK institutions by new requirements that they show they have sufficient funds for their stay. “At the University of Glasgow, 15 to 20 per cent of overseas applications have run into the sand,” Mr Guild said.
Des Freeman of Goldsmiths, University of London, declared himself against “letting employers off the hook”. Nine UCU branches across the country including Goldsmiths have so far voted to boycott the rules.
Bryan Bennett, a delegate from Middlesex University, said most international students coming to the university in the next academic year would usually have had their visas by now. This year, only one of the students coming from India had been granted a visa – the rest had been sent back for further consideration.
“We need to monitor this carefully. If students are being allowed in from China, why not India?” he said.
The union needed to send a strong message that it rejected the rules, he added. “Members need to know that they have the full weight of the union backing them up – at the moment they’re not sure.”
Elizabeth Clear, a delegate from University College London, said the rules were already adversely affecting students. One full-time overseas student who had asked to switch to a part-time course was told that she would have to return to her home country and reapply. “In the past, the change would have been straightforward,” Ms Clear said.
Update: 29 May 2009
On 29 June the UCU Congress agreed not to comply with the immigration rules. A motion, which was passed after an impassioned debate, asked the union to “immediately launch a campaign of non-compliance with all such policing and surveillance duties (including recording details from foreign national students; supplying personal details to other institutions in our capacity as external examiners, assessors and lecturers; and refusal to request such details on behalf of our own institutions from external examiners, assessors and lecturers).” The motion also said the UCU would give unqualified support to any member disciplined or victimised as a result of this campaign.