The xenophobia at the heart of the UK affects everything, including our university system

Today I read a rather brilliant article about the American justice system by Albert Burneko: The American Justice System Is Not Broken.  Along the same lines, I would argue that neither, of course, is our immigration system in the UK broken, even though some claim it is: yes, it discriminates on the basis of race, but that is entirely deliberate. Xenophobia is an integral part of the system.  All the major Westminster parties are racist in this way: the Conservative and Liberal Democrat government, and the opposition Labour party (see, for example, this interesting comment from the Spectator, which I, of course, read differently to the way they do!). The parties’ pandering to UKIP probably makes this worse, but we should be clear that none of the parties can legitimately use that as an excuse: they all espoused, and when in government operated, racist policies long before UKIP was in any way a significant force.

Xenophobia and racism, of course, permeate our society, as does discrimination on the basis of class, gender, disability, age and so on. Our political parties reflect that, but they also create it: this is a dialectical relationship, as the parties escalate their racism in order to (as they see it) appeal to more voters, who are presumed to be racists too (incidentally, realising this is what the parties think of us, the voters, leads to interesting thoughts… but that’s for another time, maybe!).

I see this all the time in the context of our country’s university system, and thought it might be interesting to give some examples and consequences. After all, especially at postgraduate level, our universities attract students from around the world, and some of our most able students are those who have gone to great lengths and endured enormous financial and emotional pressures to study here: often they are away from their families and friends for years at a time, with relatively little money, in a strange environment (and therefore with few, if any, support networks, at least to begin with) – and yet often they still produce brilliant work.  I don’t wish to devalue the achievements of UK students, but to produce excellent research under such circumstances does require additional effort and personal resolve.  EU students have it hard compared to UK students (language, unfamiliar context etc.), but non-EU students face even more hurdles – at least EU students have the right to come here and study without visa complications.

That is where, for non-EU students, the xenophobia and racism that permeates our society becomes immediately apparent.  Most non-EU students come here under the Tier 4 visa system, and universities generally have the right to enable students to come here under that scheme.  But if not, the process is complex.  It is also costly: £310 plus £310 for each dependant (so if you are careless enough to have a partner and children before studying and are unreasonable enough to want them to come with you, that gets very expensive!).

Now, let’s presume you have stumped up the money for the visa. Next you have to pay the university fees. This is the first time we see the racism that our political parties espouse in their policies reflected beyond the government.  I don’t think most people realise this, but fees for students in the EU and outwith the EU are different.  For example, if you want to do a PhD with me (yes, please do enquire!), my university charges the following at the moment (and some universities charge more):

EU students (incl. UK)
Non-EU students Mode of study
£3,996 £12,000 Full time
£1,998 £6,000 Part time

Oh, and if you’re here on a Tier 4 visa, you can’t do your PhD part-time, so forget the £6,000 option.  Of course, being a full-time student means you might struggle, for example, to do a part-time job on a supermarket checkout to help pay for your fees and living costs, especially if English is not your first language and you need all the hours in the day to read and understand complex source material or theoretical texts for your research. That’s just tough: be rich, or struggle (see how neatly class is intertwined with the racism here?).

If you need to leave the UK, perhaps for research fieldwork, or to visit your family, getting back into the UK is not necessarily straightforward.  An American PhD student of mine was stopped at Heathrow and nearly not allowed back into the UK, despite having the appropriate student visa – this is just ‘simple’ xenophobia! The immigration official at first pretended not to believe she was returning to study, with the conversation at one stage moving to comments on how pretty she was, and that she was surely just trying to get back into the UK to marry a boyfriend and stay here (all this in the fevered imagination of the border agency person – there was no boyfriend, and she was coming back to meet her supervisors and carry on her study).  That conversation could have been very different had she not been white and not been from the USA, and I know of other students who have been harassed and delayed at airports despite having the right student visa.  If they already have the right visa, they should be allowed straight through the airport immigration checks, rather than face arbitrary harassment.

Let’s presume that you complete your studies on time and graduate – congratulations, that’s a great achievement, and you, your family, and your supervisors should all be incredibly proud! Now, let’s presume that you didn’t just spend your time in a library, but maybe met a local and fell in love! That’s wonderful, and then, maybe with a year or two still to go on your student visa, you get married – congratulations again, that’s lovely, and everyone will be very happy for the two of you and wish you well for your married life together.  That is how it should be.  Unless, of course, you happen to be in the situation of one of our students a couple of years ago: as I recall it, her new husband had a daughter from a previous relationship and lived near to her and the child’s mother so he could see his daughter regularly.  He had sustained some kind of injury at work, and could now only work part-time, thereby automatically lowering his annual salary.  Despite this, the newly-married couple had more than enough money for their needs, and lived quite happily together – until she graduated and her visa ran out.  The UK government pretends to value families (the odious Iain Duncan Smith has recently even introduced a ‘family test’ for new laws), but the reality is that they don’t care about families unless they are wealthy (again, this is where class and xenophobia are linked). Our former student could only stay with her husband if between them they had a certain level of household income, otherwise she had to leave.  No amount of protestation about his situation and the lack of job opportunities for her in a difficult economic climate made any difference: she eventually had to return to America.  Her husband then had a choice to make: did he move to America with his wife (which he could do automatically, being married to an American citizen: their laws appear to be less inhuman in this regard), or did he stay in Scotland so that he could see his young daughter regularly? It’s an impossible decision to make. So much for our government pretending to support families.

But let’s forget about that crazy little thing called love, and presume you just want to stay in the country and work here, having made friends, felt welcomed by the people around you, and are happy in the town you are in.  You might struggle to get an appropriate academic job (it is extremely difficult: “only 19 per cent of UK PhD holders were in higher education research roles three and a half years after getting their doctorate”), but you might be in perfectly decent work, even if it doesn’t pay you that much. High pay, such as academics get, is not necessarily what all want – it’s very nice, certainly, but security, purpose and so on are rewarding for many, and a lot of jobs offer that.  But doing something like this is basically impossible.  Oh yes, the government will pretend it isn’t, but I have seen post-PhD students from non-EU countries try to secure employment with an income level that will satisfy the requirements of the UK government, and in most circumstances it simply can’t be done (unless you’re on a very narrow list of desired professions), especially not for people with humanities backgrounds.

There are exceptions, of course, where certain kinds of visas exist that allow work to be done by specialists without regard to income levels, but it requires a level of commitment from institutions like universities that, understaffed as most administrative departments are, is an incredible stretch.  Too often, there is too much expected of such people, and as they seek to ensure they do things properly, urgency and deadlines slip, and what seems like a perfectly simple thing to do is made more complex to the point where the human objective – helping someone stay in the country who can offer something helpful and useful to our society and where they might be happy – is lost.  Overstretched people often end up having to do things that effectively dehumanise situations, and this is neither their fault nor their moral failing.  Rather, it is that the whole immigration system is so deliberately complex and the penalties for institutions that fail to observe them so severe, that folk are terrified of failing to comply (the London Metropolitan University crisis from 2012 is etched into the mind of every university recruitment and personnel director in the country, I’m sure).

Our government’s policies are constructed in such a way that we don’t see the xenophobia and racism in our institutions unless we actually look for it, but all of our public life is infected by this it. The examples I have given point in part to the process whereby xenophobia and racism is embedded in our institutions – it’s not that people who work in our institutions are xenophobic or racist (well, some might be, but I’m arguing they are not necessarily so and I would never presume they are unless I had evidence to the contrary). People in our institutions have to come to decisions that reflect the principles laid down by the government – and these principles are the problem, reflecting values and positions the parties think we, the voters, want them to embody. We urgently need to disabuse our politicians of these views and find a way to exercise real control over our parties and government in order to address these problems.  Every election offers that opportunity, and I encourage support for parties that explicitly don’t pursue racism and xenophobia but seek to undo the damage the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour parties have done to our public life (I think this basically means the Scottish or English and Welsh Greens, the Scottish Socialists, the Scottish Nationalists, and Plaid Cymru… any more?).

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2 responses to “The xenophobia at the heart of the UK affects everything, including our university system

  1. Reblogged this on In The Public Sphere and commented:

    On my academic blog, I have a new posting about xenophobia and racism in the UK that might be of interest to readers of this blog…

  2. There are two news stories from the Sunday papers that directly connect to the issues I raised here:
    Sunday Herald: The human cost of an immigration agenda set by UKIP
    Independent on Sunday: Theresa May to ‘kick out foreign graduates’ in new immigration plans