If the UK bans overseas students, guards will have lonely Christmases

The campus security desk is often the first and last port of call for jet-lagged and far-from-home students, says George Bass 

December 7, 2022
Source: Alamy/Getty montage

“Please help me,” said the voice down the phone. It was 5.30am and one of the campus night guards was talking to a mature international student. The caller was in Gatwick and had left his iPad in the campus accommodation he’d just moved out of.

As well as his research, the device also contained his daughter’s Candy Crush saved game. She may not have spoken to him much while she was playing with it, but without it she would probably have stopped speaking to him altogether.

The night guard – who’d just done 12 hours – used master keys to retrieve the iPad from the empty accommodation, then downed a can of Monster and hit the M25. When he handed over the iPad to the departing student, the guard received a very appreciative handshake and a cash reward sufficient to fill both his tank and stomach.

Security are often the first and last port of call for international students, so we’re concerned by the recent news that the UK government has reacted to spiking overseas applications to universities (which themselves came as a result of a slump during lockdown) by considering restricting international students to “elite universities”.

The guard part of my brain is trying to see the positives. I suppose fewer students means fewer fights to run to, better odds when shutting down out-of-control house parties, and less time spent trying to get drunk kids out of manholes. Then again, the internationals tend to be a lot less trouble than the natives – not least because they tend to be older, making up a higher proportion of postgrads (37 per cent) than undergrads (15 per cent).

According to recent stats, there were, in total, over 600,000 international students studying in the UK in 2020-21, and nearly 500,000 Sponsored Study visas were issued in 2021-22, the highest on record. I’ve seen a couple of the recipients in action: they were on placement in the maternity ward when my kid was born. As soon as I clocked the university insignia on their scrubs, I tried hard to identify their accents, and work out whether I’d ever charged them for being locked out of their halls (if I did, it didn’t affect their professionalism or their manners).

Having had a go at living in another country myself – I did a working holiday to New Zealand in my twenties – I’ve got full respect for anyone who can go to a town where they know no one and sort themselves out with a place to stay and a job. I found it tough, and I picked a country that speaks the same language as me.

That’s why I try to help out the international students who cross paths with security. On the day shift, we’ll tell anyone from across the Atlantic that the first floor is upstairs and that plugging the dehumidifier they bought from the JFK International gadget shop into their bathroom shaving socket isn’t going to fly. We’ll even lend them a travel adaptor out of our lost property store if their need to recreate the Utah climate in their bedroom is urgent.

On the night shift, we’re here for a chat if new arrivals are shaking off jet lag or missing their mates and family from back home as they think of them just sitting down to have lunch. Over the Christmas shutdown, the campus closes its gates and it’s just security, a few international students and the odd British undergrad who can’t (or doesn’t want to) go home for the holidays. I won’t pretend we’re all around a box of mince pies together, but it’s nice to know there are others here with us.

I’ve got nightmares about a future with a US border-style “family separation” approach to overseas students, whereby it’s down to guards like me to drive people to the airport – this time without an iPad or any expectation of tips.

A few of the British insomniacs who stop by the security counter have also expressed financial worries if their international colleagues are barred. With overseas fees topping out at £67,892, you can understand domestic students’ fears about having to make up for universities’ lost revenue via their own tuition fees. And how is it fair that it should only be students at “non-elite” universities – who are likely to be from less wealthy backgrounds – who should have to cough up?

I’m not sure you could call our university elite. We don’t get too many kids on to University Challenge or into the House of Commons, if that’s a good measure of student prowess. Our campus has a comparatively small catchment area, which means a lot of our Brit kids come from local towns. But that is all the more reason to value our international students. Meeting peers from different cultures is like a second degree for our local students – and the closest many of them will get to an exotic holiday while money is so tight.

In the end, all this talk of banning international students is probably just political point-scoring. But you don’t have to be a Manchester City supporter to know that it’s hard to score points without a Spanish midfielder, a Brazilian goalie, a Norwegian centre-forward and a Portuguese right-back playing alongside the bloke from Barnsley.

George Bass is a security guard at a UK university.

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