The ‘Hostile Environment’, racism, and the value of migrants in UK universities

Number 38: #USSbriefs38

Unis Resist Border Controls

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Information about how UK universities enforce the ‘hostile environment policy’ — the anti-migrant policy announced by then-Home Secretary Theresa May in 2012, though effectively in place for years previously — is difficult to obtain. Generally, the Home Office issues directives about its policies toward international staff and students, and university management understand these directives as ‘statutory duties’ with which they must ‘comply’. Student records offices and HR departments then develop local policies and present them to staff and students as if they were created by the Home Office. These local policies vary widely from university to university and even from department to department. We are attempting to learn more about this complex picture through our recently launched anonymous survey, but in this USSbrief we offer our preliminary sense of how the hostile environment works in universities.

While USSbriefs24 by the International and Broke Campaign has already outlined the onerous fees and restrictions imposed on international academic staff by this policy, here we turn our attention to the racism and xenophobia that is both the context for and the effect of the ‘hostile environment’. Focusing on the difficulties faced by international students, who continue to be recruited to UK universities in large numbers even as the Home Office pledges ‘crackdowns’ on them, we show how the hostile environment shapes university policies that value and devalue students and workers according to racial, class, and national distinctions. We also recount how we and other organisers have resisted some of the hostile environment’s most egregious manifestations, and we suggest that an intellectual framework of decolonisation can help us all resist it.

Between the profit machine and the crackdown: value and international Students

On 19 July 2018, the House of Commons Committee on Science and Technology released a report recommending that the Home Office relax its fees and restrictions for international researchers, calling attention in particular to the exclusionary Tier 2 Visa caps, exorbitant fees, and restrictions on time spent outside the UK. One moment in the report is particularly revealing. A section entitled ‘Salary as a proxy for skill’ discusses the Home Office’s decision to exclude workers who make less than £30,000 from those earning an ‘appropriate salary’ for a skilled worker. It also reveals that when the number of Tier 2 visa sponsorship bids exceeds the Home Office’s quota, as it has in recent months, they generally admit only applicants earning £55,000 or higher. The Committee points out that in the case of many academics, ‘relying on salary as a proxy for skill level did not work [because] there were often highly skilled jobs that attracted a low wage’. They point in particular to postdocs, citing the Francis Crick Institute’s explanation that they ‘are highly skilled scientists on relatively low salaries’ and thus often do not meet the £30,000 threshold, despite being crucial to scientific research.

For the committee, this is a technical misunderstanding with a simple solution: the Home Office misunderstands the skill level of postdocs, and how necessary they are to scientific research, because they are willing to work for so little. Thus, they argue, the Home Office should be aware of this quirk of postdocs’ status (that they are highly skilled, yet cheap) and, at least in the sciences, make an exception to the usual salary floor.

For us, this detail indicates something more. It reveals how so many of us are undervalued economically, and how the hostile environment policy extends this capitalist logic by using our willingness (or rather, for many in this glutted market, our need) to work for low salaries to devalue us as human beings. The report’s stated intention is to reassess the value of migrant scientists’ work while sharpening the distinction between high and low-value migrants; it states at the beginning its ‘focus on the specific needs of the science and innovation community’, giving no indication that it will consider needs beyond those of scientific research and corporate innovation, such as humanities and social science research, or, say, educating students. This capacity to divide us, and to confer security on a select few of us based on our perceived worth, is dangerous. As people who care about education and knowledge more broadly, this is what we want to avoid.

It is with this intent that we bring the experience of international students into the conversation. International students are assigned value in perhaps an even more violent and contradictory way than are international academic staff. They are recruited because of the profits they bring to universities that can no longer rely on steady revenue streams from either state block grants or ‘home’ student fees; often given inadequate support once they arrive; then treated as either thieves of UK jobs (if they succeed) or drains on the system who can be easily deported (if they falter or displease their supervisors). These deportations can also happen for capricious reasons, as when between 2014 and 2016, almost 36,000 students in the UK had their visas revoked after the Home Office contracted Educational Testing Services (ETS) to run a test that identified widespread cheating on English language tests. The Home Office’s decision to use outsourced and unreliable monitoring techniques — a follow-up study found that ETS’s software was correct in only 80% of cases — caused students with excellent English to be deported without appeal, throwing their lives into chaos.

Let’s start with the profit side of things. At a new staff orientation in 2015 at the University of Manchester, a high-level administrator welcomed new staff with a speech consisting mainly of warnings that new staff would have to find ways to ‘bring in money’ if they wanted to succeed. He then paused and admitted that he wasn’t always quite sure if, on balance, many of the activities humanities scholars engaged in were particularly money-making. He then pronounced that the only reliable source of profit for universities was international students.

While the attitude of this particular administrator reflects the enthusiasm for recruitment of international students throughout the UK, it is relatively prestigious and well-resourced universities like Manchester that have largely been able to capitalise on ever-increasing international student fees. Although nationwide international student numbers have remained constant throughout the official hostile environment period (2016–17 student numbers were up 3% from 2010–11, with non-EU student numbers down by 1%), forthcoming research by Karel Williams shows that Manchester increased its international student population by 31% from 2011 to 2017. This dramatic change in the composition of the university’s student population was effected without any discussion with instructors.

These sharp increases in international students at places like Manchester have contrasted with deliberate attempts to ‘crack down’ on international students at universities with fewer resources, as then-Home Secretary Amber Rudd explained in an October 2016 speech:

I’m passionately committed to making sure our world-leading institutions can attract the brightest and the best. But a student immigration system that treats every student and university as equal only punishes those we should want to help. So our consultation will ask what more can we do to support our best universities — and those that stick to the rules — to attract the best talent… while looking at tougher rules for students on lower quality courses.

‘Lower quality’ here designates universities serving racially diverse, working-class students, as evidenced by the Home Office’s first target of such a crackdown, London Metropolitan University. In 2012, under May’s guidance, UK Border Agency (now UK Visas and Immigration) revoked London Met’s licence to sponsor non-EU international students, leaving 2,700 students scrambling to enrol somewhere else or be deported. The reason UKBA gave was that London Met could not be trusted to monitor its international students, and thus they might be in the country working rather than studying. Again, we have an extreme bifurcation based on perceived value: the ‘brightest and the best’ are recruited in greater numbers to elite institutions, while migrant students at less prestigious universities are effectively subject to ‘tougher rules’. The government is remarkably unafraid to admit that it is applying a double standard, or that it is reneging on its own commitment to treating students as consumers in a free market for education. The fact of having paid to study in the UK does not prevent migrant students from being collectively devalued, dispossessed of the education they were promised, and thrown out of the country.

Rudd’s promise to support ‘our world-leading institutions’ while targeting others may partly explain the recent expansion of for-profit educational corporations that recruit international students by borrowing the name and reputation of existing universities. Many international students in the UK are recruited by private corporations like the International Study Centres (ISCs), which offer ‘foundation year’ courses in a variety of subjects. Founded by the Study Group International Corporation in 1994, the ISCs have sixteen university partners in the UK, including Durham, Leicester, Sheffield, and Sussex. They promise universities ‘a dedicated facility for international students on your campus — under your branding’. Some ISC-university partnerships offer students the opportunity to enrol in affiliates’ degree programmes after finishing their own programme, while others ‘take students all the way to a degree within the International Study Centre environment’. Either way, ISCs recruit students under the pretence that they will be studying at the university and accessing its resources — saying, for example, ‘Sussex is a leading research university that delivers powerful results’. The fees they charge, too, are comparable with the affiliate university (from £15,000 to £18,000 for a year at Lancaster’s ISC, for example). But when students arrive, they are unable to access any of that university’s programmes or services, including disability accommodations. We have also learned of cases in which ISC students, far from home, have been denied urgently needed mental healthcare, unaware until a moment of crisis that they were excluded from the university’s services.

This is not to say that international students taking full degrees at prestigious and well-resourced universities are treated fairly, or that they are safe from the Home Office’s brutality. In the past few years, we’ve advocated for a number of students at a variety of universities who have been caught up in the Home Office’s drive to fill deportation quotas. More than prestige or academic performance, race and country of origin seem to be decisive in determining who are welcomed as ‘the brightest and the best’ and who are targeted as ‘bogus students’ and subject to crackdowns. Shiromini Satkunarajah, for example, was an asylum seeker whose family fled violence in Sri Lanka in 2009 when she was twelve. She was detained with her mother at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre after a routine visit to the Home Office to check in, three months from completing her electronic engineering degree at Bangor University. It was only tremendous public pressure and the support of her MP that allowed her to stay in the country and graduate. Many more cases, including the ongoing struggles of Luqman Onikosi at Sussex and Ahmed Sedeeq at Sheffield, involve the detention and attempted deportation of students who are still completing their degrees.

These cases demonstrate that being the best and the brightest will not protect international students, particularly students of colour, from the Home Office’s continuing drive to ‘crack down’ on migrants. Prestigious universities, for their part, seem committed to (over)compliance, as shown by the recent leaked email from UCL’s management threatening staff who fail to report student immigration violations with a ‘£20,000 personal fine per case’. It was only after we publicised the email that UCL walked back this threat, saying the email had been sent ‘in error’ and sending an apology to staff members.

Beyond value: decolonising the university

Lately it seems as if things are looking up for non-EEA academics in the UK. In the wake of the pension strike, the Home Office has added legal strike action to its list of permitted absences: migrants on Tier 2 and Tier 5 visas are now allowed to strike without compromising their right to remain in the UK. And although it is unclear whether the Home Office will accept the Science and Technology Committee’s recommendations for further relaxation of the restrictions on international researchers, these developments are wins for international staff. They have come about at least partly thanks to pressure from groups like ours, as well as new groups like International and Broke that emerged out of the strike. Yet one lesson to take from the above accounts is that we have a long way to go. Looking beyond the experiences of (largely white) international academic staff allows us to see how the frameworks for valuing migrants and their worth — income, REF submissions, GPA, etc. — are violent and unjust.

Instead of asking the government and the university to recognise the value of particular migrants, we want to close by proposing an alternative framework for thinking about international students and staff in the university system. We’ve heard a lot recently about decolonising the university by destroying racist monuments and making curricula more inclusive, both of which are important. But decolonising the university would also mean reframing the questions we ask about international students and staff. It would mean abandoning the notion that people should only be here who benefit the UK economy and national interest. It would even mean abandoning the idea of welcoming refugees (through woefully limited scholarship programmes) into our universities as a benevolent, selfless gesture.

Central to this project of decolonising the internationalisation debate would be the acknowledgement that it’s more than just coincidence, or accident, that UK universities have more resources than those in most of the rest of the world. Centuries of violence and forced labour imposed on Asia, Africa, and the Americas made Britain’s standard of living as high as it is. Slave labour financed the construction of the Codrington Library at All Souls College at Oxford in 1710, as well as the founding of Owens College (which would become the University of Manchester) in 1846. Likewise in the postwar period, the expansion of the university depended on the economic growth and welfare-state expansion that was itself an outgrowth of the imperial (and then the Commonwealth) global-economic order.

Currently, US global military dominance, supported by Britain, keeps in place a precarious but still violent global-economic system controlled by wealthy countries, corporations, and their global governance proxies. For all the impact of austerity, this system continues to benefit the upper echelons of our education system. It also makes migration, and the ability to access resources in the UK and send money home, economically necessary for many. At the same time, these militaries wreak havoc on the world, as the disastrous situations in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Gaza, Afghanistan, and elsewhere remind us.

It should go without saying that this history, and this ongoing economic and military configuration, is not fair. As Jason Hickel and Kris Manjapra persuasively argue, Britain should pay reparations for the exploitation and crimes against humanity that have led to its ability to enrich itself and establish its infrastructure. The very least the UK can do is allow migrants from parts of the world Britain has invaded and impoverished to come here, work, and enjoy the standard of living they and their ancestors have made possible.

Here, as on other fronts, the cleaners at the LSE, SOAS and elsewhere, many of them migrants, are leading the way. The LSE cleaners’ slogan ‘We Are Not the Dirt We Clean’ indicates this radical analysis. Not only does the phrase remind us of the valuable work cleaners do, and that they are undervalued for it, but it also rejects the entire system of racialised and gendered valuation that doubly injures people. This system badly under-compensates cleaners for the work they do, then allows the Home Office, and society in general, to use this exploitative wage to treat them as less than human. And unlike UCU leadership, who imagined pre-emptive compromise as a winning strategy, the LSE and SOAS cleaners stuck with their radical line, resisting even when the SOAS management retaliated against their gains by triggering an immigration raid, and they won.

They must be a model for us as we attempt to decolonise the university and to free ourselves from the idea that somehow our value as human beings depends on where we were born or on how much money we have. Just as we should not have agreed to the ‘revaluation’ of a pension fund consisting of our own deferred wages, neither should we accept that our worth as human beings, or our right to remain here, should depend on how much money we make. All workers are undervalued, and we are all worthy.

In closing, we want to ask all those affiliated with universities — especially UK citizens, department heads and others in positions of relative power, and trade union members — to help us to refuse these violent measures of human value. There is no one-size-fits all answer, but we will outline our key appeals at this time:

  • Show support — both financially and politically — for the campaigns of Luqman Onikosi and Ahmed Sedeeq, both of whom need help to pay ongoing legal fees. If you find yourself in the north of England, attend this demo to support Ahmed at his hearing on 20 August 2018 in Bradford. Pass resolutions in your local branches to support such campaigns as they arise in future.
  • Fill out our anonymous survey about how the hostile environment works at universities across the UK, so we can better understand these structures and then publicise the results.
  • Team up with Unis Resist Border Controls. Pass our motion in your branch meetings pledging to support Luqman and Ahmed and resist the hostile environment (email us for a copy), send us information at, follow us on social media, join our meetings (in person or remotely). And look out for our upcoming campaigns.

We are a collective of British and migrant students, lecturers, and university workers. We’ve been working since 2016 to oppose UKVI surveillance and the hostile environment in UK universities. This brief was written on behalf of Unis Resist Border Controls by Molly Geidel (University of Manchester), Sanaz Raji (independent researcher), and Samuel Solomon (University of Sussex).

This paper represents the views of the authors only. The authors believe all information to be reliable and accurate; if any errors are found please contact us so that we can correct them. We welcome discussion of the points raised and suggest that the discussants use Twitter with the hashtags #USSbriefs38 and #borderskillknowledge; the authors will try to respond as appropriate. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.