We won't collude with efforts to use the academy to police immigration

Ann Singleton, Steve Tombs and David Whyte decry the insidious way in which academics are being used to monitor foreign students and staff

May 7, 2009

We are among the growing number of academics across the UK voicing our concern about being drawn into playing a key role in an ever-tightening system of immigration control. Many of us are now being asked to implement procedures and checks related to immigration status on both our colleagues and our students. The creeping imposition of such practices raises questions about the legal responsibilities and contractual requirements of university and college staff, the methods the UK is using to police immigration, and the compromising of what remains of academic freedom in Britain.

In February 2008, the Government introduced major changes to UK immigration policies and laws, seeking to consolidate a plethora of immigration-control measures. The main plank of these changes was the introduction of a points-based system (PBS) under which potential employers of migrant workers from outside the European Union must be approved and licensed by the Government before workers are granted permits to take up employment. Thus, universities and colleges must now be licensed as "approved education providers" to bring non-EU students into the UK to study. In addition, before they are admitted to the country, these students must hold a visa giving them permission to enter for the purposes of study at the approved institution, and prove that they have enough money to pay their fees and maintain themselves in the UK.

The Home Office has issued the same guidance to all higher education institutions, but universities differ markedly in the interpretation and implementation of their duties. Many have introduced a variety of new practices to monitor both the employment and education of non-EU nationals. Some academics and administrators are being instructed to take full registers at lectures and seminars, and to report non-attendance (even if attendance is not compulsory); others are being asked to take the passport information or driving licence details of colleagues who are invited to act as external examiners.

What is common to these responses is that they are discriminatory and likely to result in at best prejudicial and at worst unlawful actions against individual colleagues and students. Across the sector, management responses are confused and overzealous. The atmosphere for non-EU students and colleagues is becoming increasingly hostile and surrounded with doubt and suspicion.

Our role does not extend to policing or monitoring immigration - nor should it. It is important that academics resist collusion with the creeping surveillance mentality being introduced into institutions on the back of the PBS. The only reason for monitoring student activity or achievement should be to inform best pedagogic, pastoral and ethical practices.

And such surveillance, while a breach of trust and a distortion of our mentoring and pastoral roles, is just the thin end of the wedge. Some universities have been visited by "anti-terrorism" police and asked to report (Muslim) students whose work shows signs of "radicalisation". What next? Reporting anyone who shows signs of radicalism? All of this flies in the face of the better traditions of academic life, the educational process and the ethics of ensuring that no one is discriminated against in the classroom or the lecture hall. We urge, along with Susan Edwards ("Call off the witch-hunts", 30 April), tolerance and free debate in university life.

For all these reasons, we refuse to collude with attempts by Government and higher education institutions to use academics to police and monitor immigration controls. But what, concretely, does this refusal mean? There are some things that individuals can do. Take, for example, external examining, that (largely unpaid) system of collegiate goodwill upon which all of our undergraduate and postgraduate assessment rests; increasingly, those of us undertaking such work are being asked to provide evidence of citizenship (and by implication residency) - so a refusal to engage in any such process would quickly pose problems for those making the demands.

But we cannot leave it to individuals to take isolated action. As we write, a campaign is developing from the ground up through the University and College Union, and should result in a debate on motions of non-cooperation at the UCU's national congress at the end of May. We must also join with other unions across the sector, notably those that represent administrative staff. Among those things worth defending across universities and colleges, relationships based upon mutual trust and tolerance are surely of the highest priority.

Ann Singleton is senior research fellow, School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol; Steve Tombs is professor of sociology, Liverpool John Moores University; and David Whyte is reader in sociology, University of Liverpool.

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