Last week’s announcement that Paul Dacre is to stand down as editor of the Daily Mail after 26 years at the helm of the UK’s second most widely read paid-for newspaper was quite a landmark.
Dacre is hardly a household name, having deliberately kept a low profile. He even declined to speak to the media in the wake of then Labour leader Ed Miliband’s furious reaction to the Mail’s 2013 description of his father, the late London School of Economics academic Ralph Miliband, as “the man who hated Britain”.
Nevertheless, every politician knows and fears Dacre every bit as much as they know and fear Rupert Murdoch. Eyebrows were raised in November when, just hours after sacking a Brexit-supporting minister amid high political drama, Theresa May attended a party to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Dacre’s reign.
The close relationship between May and the Mail revolves around immigration policy. The newspaper’s hostility to immigration is steadfast, and integral to its support for Brexit. It is also plausible to speculate that the ability of a post-Brexit UK to limit immigration from the European Union is what reconciles May to a policy that she opposed on economic grounds – and explains her insistence on a hard Brexit, rather than a softer exit that would require the UK to continue to permit free movement.
During her time as home secretary, May stuck doggedly to her target of reducing immigration to the “tens of thousands”. And, even in the face of fierce opposition within her own party, she has refused to remove students from immigration figures – apparently on account of her belief, since debunked, that many overstay their visas.
In 2013, May unveiled plans to create a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants. It has since become abundantly clear that the hostility extends to legal immigrants, too. Most notorious has been the Home Office’s treatment of the so-called Windrush generation of West Indian immigrants, but it has also applied to academics from outside the EU (and sometimes even from within the EU). Times Higher Education has run a string of stories about overseas academics who have been mistreated by a department apparently hell-bent on finding any excuse to deport them. Most recent was the case of an Oxford scholar who had to leave because she could not get a visa for her baby.
While there may have been no immediate exodus of EU academics following the Brexit vote, subjection to such hostility post-Brexit may well see that change. And even if the numbers who take the difficult decision to uproot their lives and leave do not skyrocket, the number of overseas academics who take the much easier decision not to come to the UK in the first place surely will, as the country’s reputation as a welcoming place to live is shredded.
Anecdotally, UK universities are already finding it hard to attract good job candidates from the EU, as well as from further afield. Even when they succeed, securing visas is extremely difficult. Quite apart from the damage that this is doing to universities and the country, the sheer waste of resources involved in such recruitment processes is a crying shame.
There are some signs of change. Nudged by the Windrush scandal (of which even the Mail expressed disapproval) and a critical shortage of doctors and nurses, new home secretary Sajid Javid has said that he wants his department to adopt a “fairer, more compassionate” immigration system. And setting out her plans for UK science post-Brexit last month, May herself said: “Today, over half of the UK’s resident researcher population were born overseas. When we leave the EU, I will ensure that does not change.”
If this is sincere, a lot needs to change at the Home Office; perhaps Dacre’s replacement by remain-supporting Geordie Greig will make implementing those changes less politically scary for Javid.
In the meantime, universities need to do everything that they can to limit the damage. Warm words are all very well but following up with concrete measures such as covering increasingly excessive visa costs for both academics and their families would be better.
Universities also need to be careful not to overinterpret their legal obligations around monitoring overseas academics and students on the Home Office’s behalf. Last week, THE ran a disturbing story about the onerous requirements that some universities have imposed on overseas staff to provide a running commentary on their whereabouts. As one academic said: “I feel like I am not trusted…that I’m assumed [to be] a criminal…[that] I don’t really want to be here [any more]”.
Compare this with the stance some US universities took over Donald Trump’s threat to deport the children of illegal immigrants, declaring themselves “sanctuary campuses” that would comply only minimally with the law in this area.
UK institutions’ fears of having their licences to sponsor international students’ visas rescinded are very understandable given their dependence on overseas fees. But the extent to which such extreme monitoring is necessary is disputed. Where doubt exists, institutions should give the benefit of it to academics who are already feeling badly bruised by the xenophobic turn that the UK has taken.