This was originally published in The Student on 2nd October.
Gandhi apparently said “You can judge a society by the way it treats its animals”. I’m not convinced that animal welfare is quite so important in gauging human progress. A better measure might be how well a society treats its guests and newest members – those who are from elsewhere. And in this respect the treatment of international students does the UK no favours.
International students from outside the EU who study at Edinburgh, and across the UK, are treated remarkably unfairly. Upon arrival they pay extortionate fees. These are well above everyone else’s and do not merely cover the cost of teaching and facilities: they cross-subsidise a wide range of the university’s activities elsewhere. Worse still, they rise every year at unexpected and unadvertised rates. I am astonished that anyone could think it fair to ask students to sign up for a four year degree with no knowledge of what they’ll be paying after the first.
And this is not all. While they are actually here many international students are treated like second-rate citizens. For instance, they are forced to register at inconvenient ‘census points’ throughout the year and those from a country which the UK government considers to be ‘dangerous’ face additional restrictions. This often means having to check-in at a police station with their passport in hand.
The UK Border Agency can also call spot inspections at short notice, where they demand to meet a selection of an institution’s international students. They then interview these students to determine whether the students are ‘legitimate’ or just here on some complicated ruse to engage in terrorist activity. Often these students are selected fairly randomly but sometimes they ask for all the students from a particular country. It will come as no surprise that these countries are often Islamic.
Moreover, one of the greatest incentives for students to study in the UK has just been taken away. It used to be that after graduation ex-international students could stay and work in the UK for more two years. This meant that they were not immediately uprooted from the lives that they had made for themselves, and that they were able to begin paying off their fees. This was particularly important for students from countries with lower average incomes, who without these Post Study Work visas will now have to carry the burden of student debt for much longer.
And this is all before the Government struck its biggest blow yet against London Metropolitan University. At the end of August the UK Border Agency announced that the ‘highly trusted sponsor’ status of the university had been revoked, and that their 2000-odd international students would face deportation in sixty days if they didn’t find another sponsor. Since then, NUS has intervened and the decision is under judicial review. Hopefully this will mean that the decision is overturned, but right now it is impossible to tell.
It is clear that this situation cannot be allowed to continue – international students should be treated as neither cash-cows nor criminals. We desperately need to force the UK Government to change direction sharply. In the 2010 General Election all three major parties scrambled over one another to say more and more xenophobic and disgusting comments about immigrants. This culminated in David Cameron promising to cut net immigration from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands – a promise which was clearly always unfeasible. Now as the economy weakens further, and more and more people are suffering the sharp end of the Coalition’s sword, the Government is increasingly keen to dodge their responsibility and blame ‘foreigners’. We cannot allow this to happen to students, nor workers nor asylum seekers.
But while it is clearly Westminster at fault for all of this, the University and Scottish Government could certainly do more to make international students feel welcome. The University could make the intrusive census points as convenient and unobtrusive as possible, and they could do more to communicate these requirements with students. And the Scottish Government could demand that universities are upfront about fees and charge the same amount every year.
These are the goals of our new EUSA campaign, led by international students but involving everyone. We’ll be meeting on Wednesday 3rd October at 2pm in the Teviot Middle Reading Room to begin planning. I hope to see many of you there.