Find a new university in sixty days or get kicked out of the country.
This is the message that the two-thousand strong population of international students at London Metropolitan University woke up to yesterday. It is a result of immigration minister Damian Green’s decision to abruptly revoke the university’s ‘highly trusted sponsor’ status, meaning that it is now banned from sponsoring and recruiting international students.
Green alleges that the university has been irresponsible in its adherence to regulations, replete with some muddled words on how London Met were unsure if students were turning up for classes. It is not particularly worth debating whatever administration issues London Met may have- it is however, worth pointing out that London Met students were the victims of 70% cuts to courses including virtually all humanities subjects.
In April, the University and College Union reported that 91% of staff had no confidence in the institution’s vice chancellor, following plans to axe 200 staff. The university seems to be fast becoming a testbed for the most reactionary and brutal of anti-student, anti-worker and now anti-immigrant policies that are part of the Coalition’s new regime for higher education.
Since when did London Met become a Border Agency outpost? Their task is to educate their students, not to act as a migration control force that sees students as commodities and potential criminals. Yet the real issue is, whether LMU has contravened guidelines or not, it would be shameful to ignore the humanitarian crisis which Green’s brash and ill-considered decision has led to.
This morning’s Metro article on the story featured a picture showing bailiffs dragging student furniture off the premises. These include students that have spent £25,000 on tuition fees, students due to graduate in one term (or even that have finished and yet are unable to submit final dissertations) that may be unable to complete their degrees, and students from impoverished backgrounds.
The UK Border Agency’s decision has, as aforementioned, given them a mere sixty days to find entirely new educational institutions or face summary deportation. In short, two thousand students are being thrown on the scrapheap, denied their qualifications and their fee money stolen from them, simply for being international students. That is what this amounts to, and it is unacceptable.
Despite the fact that the UK’s 300,000 international students pay in more than £2bn a year in tuition fees, Green and the Home Office have been intent on cutting places (including as a horribly disingenuous ‘solution’ to the tuition fee debacle- the one in which ministers were shocked when universities started to charge the amount they were permitted to charge.) This is a higher education issue and one of defending academia, undoubtedly, but it is also part of a wider raft of attacks on immigrant communities. It is a time-honoured strategy- to raise the bugbear of immigrants supposedly draining resources (which falsely assumes social service provision and employment are a zero-sum game and completely ignores the massive impact of austerity) in order to deflect blame for ongoing economic turmoil. It is a strategy that manifests itself in ugly consequences, such as the situation at London Met, and on another side of the coin, the fact that the Islamophobic English Defence League will tomorrow demonstrate in Waltham Forest. Mainstream anti-immigrant discourse opens up political space for extreme-right thugs (only a few days ago, a pig’s head was found pinned to a mosque.) It also allows more mainstream organisations to get away with exploitation- for instance the grim environment of Campsfield House asylum detention centre a few miles north of Oxford, or the camp at the London Olympics where migrant Olympic workers were expected to live in squalid horror at a camp bordering the Olympic Park- and pay rent for it.
The struggles for migrant rights and higher education are encapsulated in the London Metropolitan crisis. If Green is allowed to escape from this decision unscathed, it will almost certainly mean an escalation of attacks on higher education, international students and immigrants in general – the London Met decision itself was only possible because of little-challenged precedents at smaller private-colleges. But already over the last day or so, a strong resistance to the UKBA’s move has emerged. The Education Activist Network has raised the slogan ‘Hands off our classmates’, and are inviting students to take part in their photo campaign. For anyone in London, an emergency demonstration has been called at the Home Office in Marsham Street for September 5th. All those wishing to sign a petition in support of the London Met students can be found here– thousands of signatures have been amassed already.
It is most likely that Green feels he can get away with such a draconian measure here because of classist and anti-academic slurs in the media about LMU being a ‘Mickey Mouse university’ and so on. Yet we should not defend the international students of LMU simply because we could be next (though that is a likely outcome.) We should defend them because the two thousand people with sixty days to uproot themselves and find a new place of education or face deportation need our help as fellow students and fellow people.