You look foreign: bring your passport, it's what the UKBA would want

Overreaction to the London Met case has exacerbated institutional racial harassment, Scott Poynting and Ann Singleton argue

October 4, 2012

Credit: Paul Bateman

At a recent academic conference held overseas, a colleague received an email from administrators at the university where he studies and works. They knew he was at the conference because the university had paid for his attendance. But the email said that as he had not signed the overseas student register as he was required to do each week, he was absent without leave and in breach of his overseas student visa conditions. The administrators said they were obliged to notify the UK Border Agency.

It is hard for those of us who have not been, and will not be by dint of origin, subject to such demands to imagine the effects of receiving such a threat - not least for a relatively young scholar, making a contribution at a prestigious international meeting, having prepared a paper into which he had invested a great deal of time and effort, and from which his university would no doubt benefit. We doubt very much whether this sort of over-reaction is indeed called for by the UKBA's requirements, but we have no doubt that such overenthusiasm is motivated by fear of what has happened to London Metropolitan University: the devastating withdrawal of its highly trusted sponsor status and thus its capacity to enrol non-European Economic Area students.

At a different university, several colleagues - including British citizens - have received emails from their human resources department demanding (doubtless unlawfully) that they furnish their passports, again purportedly to comply with UKBA regulations. A PhD student, a legal UK resident of non-EEA origin, received an email from the university's international office advising abruptly that her enrolment had been suspended until such time as she presented her passport (something never hitherto asked for) to the bureaucrats - once more supposedly in accordance with UKBA rules. This institutional insensitivity and over-policing is perhaps inevitable given that university administrators are not professional border agents - and given the intimidatory example made of London Met.

Put any group of academics from different institutions in the same room and such stories of intimidation would no doubt be repeated. Higher education is riven by low-level institutional racial harassment. Occasionally, of course, the issue hits the headlines - most recently, and infamously, via the London Met debacle, which collectively punishes legitimate overseas students for the apparent shortcomings of the university administration. Surely we should value international collaboration between academics and students at all levels, and thus condemn the UKBA's narrow and short-term-oriented intervention into UK higher education for setting a dangerous and destructive precedent?

All this occurs, of course, against the backdrop of the abhorrent ideological and administrative targeting of overseas students in the UK as part of the attempt to reduce net immigration in order to pander to the anti-immigration lobby.

The imposition of these policies effectively brands all overseas students as potential immigration fraudsters and requires them to prove their innocence. At the same time it inappropriately positions educational institutions as engaging in bogus operations unless they can prove otherwise.

Checks and approvals for issuing visas are not the proper function of higher education institutions: we must collectively object to the Home Office imposing these roles on universities as a cost-cutting measure and in the context of understaffing at the UKBA. Our universities should stand up to anti-immigration bullying, stop kowtowing to the perceived whims of the UKBA and concentrate instead on the functions of higher education that are their raison d'être.

Institutionalised racism takes many forms: this is one of the more insidious ways in which the UK academy has been drawn on to this terrain. As we (and many others) have previously warned, the Tier 4 issue is only one part of a wider set of checks on academics and students (such as institutions scrutinising UK passports). There is now mounting evidence that black and minority-ethnic UK citizens and those with "foreign-sounding" names are being disproportionately targeted. The surveillance of non-EEA students is being extended to European Union and British citizens, students and staff alike.

The High Court has granted interim relief to protect the position of international students at London Met, and the institution has been granted permission to seek a judicial review. In the meantime, other universities should not opportunistically attempt to "poach" disenfranchised London Met students. The tolerance and collegiality that should underpin the university are being undermined in myriad ways - this is one of them.

We ought to speak out and let our actions speak louder still by refusing to conduct or comply with xenophobic surveillance that is so detrimental to higher education.

The courts may have a lot of work ahead of them.

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