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Building a fortress around British academia

A new report shows just how devastating, irrational and unfair are the UK’s restrictions on international students.

Valerie Hartwich

Topics Politics

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The UK government has introduced tougher rules for international students from outside the European Union. ‘Genuine students’ will not be affected, said home secretary Alan Johnson, but applicants will now be expected to master the English language to GCSE level, and dependants of students on short courses will no longer be allowed in the country. Furthermore, the number of permitted working hours for international students will be reduced, while dependants of those on less than degree level course will no longer be able to work at all.

Given the current climate of economic anxiety, these measures are intended to send the message that Labour is coming down hard on ‘bogus’ visa applicants. Yet as I found while researching a Manifesto Club report on student visas, launched today, the UK visa system is already blocking thousands of international students from the UK. Students already endure expensive and arduous procedures, a situation which these latest developments will only worsen.

The points-based immigration system (introduced in 2008) has imposed burdensome new requirements on international students and academics, including: higher visa fees, biometric profiling, and a requirement on applicants to prove they have up to £7,000 savings, which must be held in their own account for several months prior to arrival in the UK.

The points-based system was meant to target ‘bogus students’ and would-be terrorists. Overall, however, it appears to be genuine applicants from modest backgrounds who suffer the most from the changes. The harder financial tests equate to an unreasonable selection on the basis of money rather than talent.

I spoke to Dr Povall of Falmouth University, Devon, who reported the case of a Zimbabwean student unable to come to the UK: ‘The Zimbabwean student, who was desperate to come and had been trying for three years, in the end gave up. She simply was not able to raise the funds necessary to meet the new regulations, even though she had spent the previous year finding enough money for her to qualify under the old rules.’

A South Korean fine arts undergraduate student at Goldsmiths College in London recounted the difficulties she had securing the thousands of pounds required to pass the visa test. She had to ask her parents for help, who, despite being home owners, did not have sufficient available funds. The family eventually turned to an uncle for additional support, and only then managed to get the money required.

Indeed, many international students rely on family support networks to meet financial requirements, and may have also worked and saved up money for many years. Working while studying is the only way they can see the course through. Genuine applicants from modest backgrounds are therefore most likely to be deterred, either because coming over here will no longer be financially feasible, or because it will make them and their families more vulnerable to loan agencies.

To make matters worse, international students and academics have had to expend large amounts of money and time dealing will bureaucratic glitches. A Pakistani academic saw his visa application turned down when the UK Border Agency (UKBA) accused him of having provided forged bank statements. He reports: ‘I asked for an official review and deferred my place and bursaries till January, sadly having to pass on the teaching positions. The response is supposed to be within 28 days; it is now more than 90 days and I have no idea what they are doing with my case. In 10 days I will lose my bursaries from Goldsmiths, unless they consider extending the offer for a few days more, and, worse yet, I might have a 10-year ban on entering the UK placed on me [as a result of the false forgery charge].’

One US student who started a Finance Masters at the London School of Economics in October 2009 almost lost her chance to do so when, although she had submitted all the necessary documentation in June 2009, she was informed in July that proof of sufficient funds now needed to be held in a bank account under her own name (rather than her parents’ account, as before). She did this, but was told in August that they were still expecting the rest of her documentation. So she flew to the regional processing centre, and only managed to resolve an absurd situation because she talked her way into the building to find the required documentation lying on a desk. Had she not, she would have had to restart the whole process and repay the application fee.

Another problem with the points-based visa system lies in its attempt to automate visa decisions – and to focus them in regional centres, away from the applicant’s country. The points-based system is designed to work as an almost fully automated administrative process. Personal histories and local or national contexts are often ignored, which is why perfectly authentic documents are treated as fakes if they do not look like the British archetype, or why a simple spelling mistake on a form can lead to rejection. Indeed, border agents themselves have complained that due to the new procedures they can no longer conduct interviews, as most of the checks are either automated or occur away from the home country of the applicant.

A further problem lies in the outsourcing, and therefore effective privatisation, of a large part of the application process to the UKBA’s commercial partners, VFS Global and WorldBridge Service. This has had two consequences. Firstly, while applications could previously be done in any country with a UK consulate or embassy, for cost-cutting reasons centres have now often been grouped by region, adding travelling costs for some applicants. Secondly, it raises the question of who is held accountable in case of errors: the commercial partners, the UKBA, or the Home Office?

The Home Office’s visa tests also have little rationale in terms of preventing terrorist threats. It is likely that members of terrorist organisations would have no difficulty coming up with money to travel to collection centres, to show a well-stocked bank account and prove fluency in English. As a University and College Union (UCU) interviewee observed, ‘9/11 and the 7/7 attacks have both shown that terrorist threats can come from well-to-do, educated backgrounds and homegrown groups’. The failed attack on a Detroit-bound jet in December 2009 – attempted by the son of a major Nigerian businessman, who had studied at UCL – is further evidence for this.

With a UK General Election around the corner, political parties are competing in drawing up tougher measures for international visitors. The Labour government’s latest crackdown on international students follows Tory claims that the student visas system is a ‘loophole’, and suggestions that Labour is soft on immigration. Strong gestures become more frequent, to international students’ cost. Last week, all applications by nationals from north India, Nepal and Bangladesh were frozen, amid rising numbers of demands and fears of fraud. Thousands of potential students were left stranded.

It is time the government stopped pouring vast sums of money into inefficient and discriminatory laws. The UK has become an open, cosmopolitan society, a melting pot where the national dish is curry rather than shepherd’s pie, where professors and students from all countries can collaborate to generate novel thinking. The UK has thrived on the cultural diversity and exchange that have characterised it for some decades, and has been a prime recipient of the ‘brain drain’ from the South.

The Manifesto Club’s Visiting Artists and Academics campaign calls for the points-based visa system to be abolished, and our petition already has over 10,000 signatures. This campaign is founded on the belief that a society grows stronger, more tolerant and more innovative through its exchange with others – and in firm opposition to the Home Office’s suspicious tick-box procedures.

Valérie Hartwich is a French-German writer and translator based in London. She is a researcher for the Manifesto Club’s Visiting Artists and Academics campaign and author of the Manifesto Club report, Fortress Academy, published today.

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Topics Politics

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