The encroaching border: international students


A guest post by Marina Burka, Fulbright Scholar from the United States and MRes (Master of Research) student at the University of Glasgow.  This is the first in a series of posts by Marina.

The Immigration Act 2016 builds on measures implemented in the Immigration Act 2014 to further incorporate ordinary British citizens into performing the roles of border agents as part of their daily lives. The Acts intend to make migrants feel the presence of the border not just at boundaries between nations, but in the places we occupy on a daily basis: in our banks, places of worship, schools and universities, even our homes. Critical attention must be paid to the ways this Government continues to co-opt the public into covert and pernicious surveillance roles that demand citizens manage, monitor and report on migrants to the Home Office.


Outsourcing border enforcement to citizens, however, predates the Immigration Acts 2014 and 2016. The Home Office has mandated that higher education providers put their international students and staff under surveillance for the past seven years. Though a relatively privileged category of migrants, international students – myself included – have also felt the border’s presence in the spaces we occupy on a daily basis – our universities and colleges. By examining the ways immigrant surveillance operates in our higher education institutions, we can oppose the Immigration Acts 2014 and 2016 on the grounds that they, too, turn citizens into border guards and we can protect the social fabric of our multicultural communities.

Impacts of the Points Based Immigration System in Higher Education

On 31 March 2009, the Labour Government implemented the points based immigration system (PBIS). PBIS tied higher education institutions to the Home Office in unprecedented ways, mandating significant changes in order for universities and colleges to maintain the ability to sponsor international students and staff. For the first time, academic and administrative staff became responsible for monitoring the attendance and whereabouts of their international students and colleagues and for reporting such information as well as any ‘suspicious behaviour’ to UKBA (UK Border Agency – now UK Visas and Immigration, UKVI).

These initial demands were vague yet far from trivial. UKBA demanded compliance with the following regulations:

  • Allow UKBA staff access to any of your premises on demand. Visits may be either prearranged or unannounced;
  • Stick to any sponsorship action plan set by UKBA;
  • Look to minimise the risk of immigration abuse by complying with any good practice guidance that UKBA or any sector body may produce for you in particular tiers or sectors.

With a reliance on international students, colleges and universities felt they had little choice but to cooperate with the regulations. Fear over losing sponsorship ability combined with UKBA’s vague regulations, however, led education providers to massively over-report students and staff. In the first two years after PBIS was established, UKBA received more than 35,000 notifications from education providers, around 1,500 per month. As writer Valérie Hartwich articulates in a report called Students Under Watch:

“It is difficult to imagine that so many international students [were] absconding every month. It therefore seems that universities [were] acting nervously, in part because of the vagueness of their duties. Let us remember that this nervousness might [have led] to the deportation of individuals and an implied ten year ban from the UK.”

From the moment PBIS was introduced, it began to erode academic freedom and create a climate of suspicion between international students and staff and those required by law to monitor them.


Coalition Government and further clampdowns

When the Coalition Government came to power in May 2010, they swiftly implemented further restrictions on education institutions in an attempt to deliver on their electoral promise of reducing net migration to the tens of thousands.

From April 2012, all education providers wishing to enrol students on Tier 4 visas had to attain Highly Trusted Sponsor (HTS) status, opening their institutions up to greater surveillance demands. Four months after the introduction of HTS, London Metropolitan University temporarily lost its sponsor status. In addition to abandoning more than 2,700 international students to enrol at a different university or college within 60 days or face ‘administrative removal’ (ahem, deportation), the highly publicised suspension signalled a pernicious new turn in the higher education sector. Fearful of suffering the same fate as London Metropolitan, universities and colleges across the UK quickly adopted heavy-handed surveillance measures to demonstrate their compliance with UKVI.

The University of the Arts London and University of Glamorgan, for example, required international students to check in on campus once per week; Coventry University required check-in three days per week at ‘monitoring stations’ throughout the campus; and the Universities of Ulster and Sunderland subjected international students to biometric fingerprinting. The fact that institutions took such varied approaches to the same regulations highlight their ambiguity and show just how far universities and colleges were willing to go to prevent losing HTS status.

This sentiment was echoed in a letter to The Guardian newspaper. Signed by more than 160 academics, it states that since London Metropolitan’s licence was suspended, “universities have been preoccupied with managing accountability demanded by UK Visas and Immigration…and in effect have becomes its proxy.” Indeed, the introduction of HTS has not been inconsequential. Since 2011, UKVI has revoked the sponsoring licences of nearly 1000 education providers.

Where are we now?

Under massive pressure from UKVI to follow a set of vague, high-stakes regulations, universities and colleges have been fully complicit in the surveillance of their international students and staff. The Home Office has systematically permeated our academic spaces to the extent that when new legislation is enacted, it is swiftly incorporated into the daily functioning of our higher education institutions.

The Immigration Acts 2014 and 2016 are prime examples. They introduce even harsher restrictions on international students and have been quickly and quietly integrated into colleges and universities in time for the upcoming academic year. This Guardian article clearly sums up all of the changes, but I want to draw attention to one policy in particular. College students are no longer able to extend their student visa or switch to a work visa from the UK. Instead, they must first go home before applying, after a waiting period, to return to the UK. This echoes the faulty logic of ‘deport first; appeal later’ introduced in the Immigration Act 2014 for Foreign National Prisoners and rolled out to all migrants by the Immigration Act 2016, further exposing the Government’s attempts to reduce overall numbers of migrants by any means necessary.

Increasing restrictions from the Home Office have been coupled with self-induced surveillance measures inside higher education institutions. In the course of my research, academics have described how monitoring is simultaneously becoming more bureaucratised and less visible. Forms that ask for intrusive information on Tier 4 students consistently arrive in lecturers’ inboxes, but, as one participant said:

“We don’t really know who’s doing this work now. It has become so digitised and ambiguous to the point that it’s hard to pinpoint what’s actually happening.”

What is at stake?

Monitoring the whereabouts and activities of more than 400,000 international students is no small feat. It demands full cooperation from institutions, suppresses resistance from students and staff and promotes a culture of silence. Failing to contend with the surveillance measures institutionalised in higher education means we fail to contend with the same measures that affect other migrants in the UK. As another participant said, “It’s all surveillance information. It’s all about enabling it to be very easy for the UK border force to turn up in my office and take somebody away. That is where it leads. And how do I know that? Because that is exactly what they’ve done to asylum seekers.”

And that is what happened to nearly 50,000 students who were wrongly deported in 2014 after the Home Office used an English testing scam at one school to incriminate all students in the UK who had used the same test.

The Upper Tribunal (Asylum and Immigration) recently declared that the evidence used – which resulted in more than 60 institutions losing their Tier 4 licence, hundreds of dawn raids, and the detention and removal of thousands of international students – had ‘multiple frailties and shortcomings.’ Though this victory means those students could return to the UK and seek compensation, the damage is still done. Their lives are forever changed.

We should ask ourselves what will happen if spaces that have been built on a foundation of intellectual autonomy and freedom from government control continue to be incorporated into a system of quiet, pernicious surveillance that dictates who can and cannot come to study or work in academia in this country. Ignoring this critical question will surely mean we will continue to witness unjust deportations, severed relationships and interrupted lives as the Government tries to reduce overall numbers of migrants by any means necessary.


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