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Britain Should Be Ashamed of Its Treatment of International Students

05/04/2016 09:05 | Updated 05 April 2016

There is an irony at the heart of current British immigration policy- just where you would think intelligence should be most likely to dwell, higher education, is actually where we are being the most short-sighted and foolish. Julia Goodfellow, President of Universities UK, in her inaugural speech to her organisation decried 'unnecessary administrative hurdles' that she believes are deterring international students, and stated last year that "their belief that they are not welcome is not perception but a reality." This assertion is backed up by research that has shown that international students have felt less than welcome due to negative rhetoric around immigration in the UK and subsequent government reform.

This is hardly a surprising response to successive waves of abusive policy eroding the rights of international students. Over the past few years government policy, spearheaded by Theresa May, has made it so that international students have had to start paying to use the NHS (we quite literally no longer have a health service free at the point of use), can only stay in the country for four months after completing their degree (instead of the original two years) and have to jump through more demeaning and unnecessary administrative hoops and visa check-ups. Not to be seen to be half-hearted, however, the Home Secretary went a step further.

Last week the courts ruled that Theresa May's detaining and deporting of students and recent graduates, without a fair trial, for what she claimed was fraudulently obtaining visas with an English test administered by a company her own office had recommended was 'wrongful' and based on poor evidence. This stemmed from the revelation by a 2014 BBC Panorama investigation that found that the ETS firm was fraudulently passing students in one local area- yet the show's investigators themselves said that this didn't prove the practice was widespread. Instead of investigating further, the Home Office, whom had previously recommended the firm to potential visa recipients, decided to start rounding up students and graduates that had used results from the test company as part of evidence for their visa. This led to at times dozens of immigration officers conducting raids, imprisoning the foreign nationals and eventually deporting them without them having a chance to see the evidence against them or present their case.

In light of the court ruling it is now looking like the Home Secretary's actions have led to somewhere in the region of 50,000 students being unlawfully deported from these shores. Her response to the ruling was depressingly similar to many Cabinet ministers' when they are told they have acted illegally (something that has happened surprisingly often in the past few years)- refuse to admit fault, spend taxpayers money on lengthy appeals processes and carry on disregarding the human rights of people they are supposed to serve.

Yet it is not just government policy unfairly treating international students- our universities have been keen to get in on the act too. They charge international students many times more what domestic students pay (with little to no justification), and are quite happy to raise tuition fees mid-year, with little or no prior warning, whilst simultaneously failing to provide adequate support services for international students, despite owing much of their financial stability to them. It should come as no surprise to learn then, that foreign student places in 2014 declined for the first time in 30 years.

All of this becomes all the more illogical when we realise just how important diversity is to the vibrancy of the higher education sector. Those that focus purely on the financial contribution that international students (and, it must be said, immigration in general) provide miss the more important things that are gained by a diverse and eclectic range of experiences and views being represented on our campuses. Academia works best when it is done by a wide range of individuals who have a variety of ways of approaching an issue and a different range of backgrounds, cultures and histories to bring to the debate - debate and progress quite literally feed off the sort of discourse and energy that diversity of opinion provides. International students, in my experience at least, are usually some of the most engaged in campus life, creating fantastic societies that bring their culture alive on our campuses and contributing to student life in a myriad of ways. My own course is undoubtedly the better for its international makeup too - there is nothing more humbling (and more rewarding) then having traditional Anglo-centric opinions challenged by the Lebanese, South African or German student in the class. These are benefits to campus life and academia we risk losing if we continue down our discriminatory path.

International students find themselves in the unfortunate position of being trapped between a higher education sector, ravished by neoliberalism, attempting to squeeze every penny out of them, and a truly authoritarian Home Secretary, seemingly allowed a very long leash by a party desperate to shore up populist votes, attempting to clamp down on their number and duration of stay. Increasingly the message international students are being sent is that we want to obtain as much money from them in as short a space of time as possible, and then send them back to where they came from - metaphors around cash cows, whilst perhaps less than gratifying, are increasingly apt, and embody the selfish attitude to immigration that Britain increasingly pervades. There seems to be an arrogance in the higher education sector too when it comes to how domestic and foreign students are treated- we seem to be under the impression that because we have such world-renowned institutions of learning that students will keep coming no matter how we treat them. Maybe they will, but perhaps they shouldn't- perhaps Britain doesn't deserve them.

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