Some thoughts on attitudes towards foreign students in the UK

London Met is in the news, again. Of course, it’s not good news. One reads lots of negative coverage about London Met. One doesn’t read much about other pressing issues in higher education, such as, say, the dubious involvement of some British universities in military research. (The topic is taboo in Britain, but is actually regularly reported on in other places.) In any case, I do wonder why London Met is of such interest to journalists.

Be this as it may, the news coverage about London Met points, as I suggested in my last post, to a narrowing of public debates about higher education in the country. Today’s big issue in the news is the university’s loss of its visa license for international students. The Guardian has paired its reporting on the issue with reports and commentaries on international students’ inability to speak English, immigration policies, and an overall decline in net immigration. The Independent focuses on the problem of immigration and the international competitiveness of British universities. Interestingly, it gives quite a lot of room to the views of Migration Watch UK, an overtly xenophobic campaign group that has advocated, for instance, mandatory HIV tests for immigrants and a withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights. I do not believe that I need to describe the coverage of the issue in the Daily Mail; you can surely imagine what that newspaper has had to say.

Two aspects of these news reports are noteworthy. First, there is the implicit or explicit xenophobia that speaks from most of them. (And if you want to see real xenophobia in action, do take a look at some of the comments which readers have left on the various newspaper websites. There’s a lot of thoughtful debate to be found in the reader comments, too.) Second, there is the reduction of academic life to its financial worth. Foreign students tend to be imagined, first, as lucrative income sources for “brand UK” and, second, as undesirables or potential threats (“bogus students”) who need to be processed through their degree course and then made to leave the country. So, for example, The Guardian’s report on the issue starts by describing the consequences which London Met’s loss of its visa license has for its students:

“The UK Border Agency (UKBA) has revoked the university’s power to teach or recruit international students, leaving nearly 3,000 students facing removal unless they can find another place to study within 60 days. As university leaders rallied to find alternative institutions to take London Met’s existing international students and those already offered places, Green denied making the university a political football over immigration controls and insisted such action would not be replicated across the university sector.”

The motivations for this are then quickly made explicit:

“But the government and universities are working quickly to ensure the action does not jeopardise the UK’s lucrative higher education industry, which involves about 300,000 students and is worth an estimated £5bn a year to the economy.”

The newspaper, moreover, ties its coverage of the problems at London Met very obviously to debates about Britain’s ‘immigration problem’. The Independent cites Sir Andrew Green, the chairman of Migration Watch UK, with the following words:

“Some inflated figures have been circulated about the economic value of foreign students.
The number of student immigrants has increased by 59% since the new points based system was introduced and there is crystal clear evidence of substantial abuse. The Government are absolutely right to crack down on this. Looking ahead, the financial interests of the universities cannot be allowed to destroy the Government’s immigration objectives which are so widely supported by the public.”

This is followed not by a rebuttal of Sir Andrew’s xenophobic views, but rather by a statements about the economic worth of foreign students by a  representative of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and by shadow immigration minister Chris Bryant. The latter argues:

“This announcement leaves thousands of genuine international students in an impossible situation of finding a new place to study, just days before the beginning of a new university term. But beyond the immediate scramble to find new places, the way in which the Immigration Minister has drawn out the decision will make many think again about whether to come to the UK to study and will cause lasting damage to the international reputation of the UK university system which brings billions into the UK economy every year. […]”

When I was a student not that long ago, I had teachers who spoke about opportunities to study abroad in terms of things like international friendship and the ability to widen one’s emotional and intellectual horizon. The opportunity to study and live abroad was seen as an enriching and immensely important experience for both students and the societies that would receive them. At that time, there were also still politicians who had experienced the Second World War first-hand and who seemed genuinely concerned about international friendship and peace as intrinsically worthwhile goals. To today’s hardboiled politicians, journalists, and academic managers, these views must seem quaint and laughable. The problem, of course, is that xenophobia cannot be countered with arguments about foreigners’ financial worth and the economic benefits of having foreign students. Xenophobia can only be countered in its own terms, i.e. in terms of robust arguments about the importance of cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism. Building such arguments and making them credible is very hard indeed when public debates obsessively reduce everything to its financial worth. The sheer power of repetition erodes the public’s ability to imagine that anything else might matter at all.

As a foreign student in Britain, I had a great time, and I benefited both academically and intellectually from my stay in the country. The university where I studied had a genuinely multicultural environment, of which it seemed quite proud. I am sure that many British universities still genuinely value their foreign students for more than the money they bring. Nonetheless, when I speak to friends and collaborators who are foreign students in Britain nowadays, I often hear about their unease and their feeling that they are not genuinely welcome. In between the harsh and often obstructive treatment they receive from immigration officials and public debates that make them feel purely like cash cows, they are not sure anymore whether they are really meant to be there. Many of them are highly talented scholars and could contribute much to academic life in the country. British academia thus stands to lose much from the narrow and impoverished representation of foreign students in the media and in public debates.

There is a long tradition of foreign students attending British universities. The country’s history as the centre of a world-spanning colonial empire is key to understanding this. British universities used to attract foreign students because of their location at the heart of empire and because of that empire’s ability to impose certain educational models on wide swathes of the world. Instead of empire, we now have “brand UK”. Where empire was a hard-and-fast reality, brand UK is an array of images in mass media, political speeches, and marketing brochures. Today, universities rely heavily on tools such as global rankings, research and teaching assessments, and persuasive advertising campaigns to recruit foreign students. While the media have shown a tremendous interest in foreign students who can’t speak English/bogus students/potential immigrants, most of those who come to Britain to study are actually extremely bright young people who are hoping for genuine academic achievement. For these students to succeed, the imagery of brand UK is insufficient. They must be genuinely welcome, and universities, immigration officials, and the public at large must have a genuine understanding of the meaning of hospitality.

(Note: A few hours after I wrote this, a post with similar arguments was published on the Guardian website. Also take note of the reader comments below the post. It will be interesting to see how the debate evolves.)

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Daniel Nehring

My career so far has taken me to a fairly wide range of places, and this has allowed me to experience a wide range of approaches to sociology and social science. In my blog, I reflect on this diversity and its implications for the future of the discipline.

Over the last few years, I have also become interested in exploring the contours of academic life under neoliberal hegemony. Far-reaching transformations are taking place at universities around the world, in terms of organisational structures, patterns of authority, and forms of intellectual activity. With my posts, I hope to draw attention to some of these transformations.

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