The Coalition Is Transforming UK Universities Into Border Checkpoints

21/10/2012 13:06 BST | Updated 19/12/2012 10:12 GMT

The coalition government, under the auspices of the UK Border Agency (UKBA), is transforming universities from places of discovery and learning into border checkpoints where the constant surveillance and monitoring of students--foreign and domestic alike--is a core part of every university's mission.

Managers argue that the current drive to monitor student attendance--even for activities like lectures that are generally not compulsory-- has been forced upon them by the UKBA. They cite complaints from agents who have conducted spot-checks that universities are not doing enough to account for the daily whereabouts of foreign students. That universities are being asked to provide more extensive forms of monitoring and record keeping than the UKBA itself--an agency whose own screening procedures have failed and that remains unable to track when holders of student visas leave the country--has been tacitly accepted. Moreover, some management teams argue that any form of resistance to UKBA demands is too risky to contemplate. They point to the iron-gloved--yet ham-fisted--decision to strip London Metropolitan University of its license to sponsor non-EU students, a decision that is now under judicial review. Thus it is claimed that precise records of classroom attendance, regular census collections, and extensive tracking procedures must be undertaken because there is no alternative. There is a common refrain that the loss of the ability to recruit foreign fees paying students will result in certain bankruptcy for any institution that dares to defy the UKBA.

Sensitive to the possibility that targeting foreign students for surveillance based on their nationality could be construed as discriminatory, some university management teams are implementing programmes that require that all students be closely monitored. In the name of 'equality', there have even been suggestions that domestic truants could be reported to the Student Loans Company. Yet, despite the pretension of engaging in equal opportunity snooping, behind closed doors, it is made clear that non-EU students are the priority. Surveillance measures being undertaken to meet UKBA approval range from the farcical--e.g., having hundreds of students sign a register during a lecture --to the Orwellian--including the mooting of biometric scanning devices at one Russell Group university.

With the imposition of arbitrary state surveillance into the lecture theatre, the open and independent aspects of student learning in higher education are undermined. Registers blur the distinction between universities and schools-including the role that the university experience should play in improving the motivation, personal responsibility, and maturity of students through independent learning. Demanding obedience through coercive threats--i.e., deportation and/or other forms of reporting to the authorities--does nothing to foster critical thinking. In fact, it represents the very anti-thesis of academic freedom. As such, the relationship between lecturers and students is slowly being poisoned. Traditional student expectations that lecturers should serve as teachers, mentors, and providers of pastoral care are now superseded by their de facto conscription into the UKBA. A corrosive power dynamic is emerging. Involvement in surveillance mechanisms encourages students to perceive lecturers as law enforcement agents for a state that has shown great hostility towards young people under the coalition government.

Some will say that being subjected to monitoring is a small inconvenience for foreign students who choose to study here. The problem is, if that is the price to be paid, foreign students are going to go elsewhere where conditions are more welcoming. Higher education systems from around the world are now competing with the UK for the foreign students who inject between £4.3-12.5 billion per annum into the UK economy, whose fees subsidise places on courses for home students, and whose positive experiences while studying can make them enthusiastic ambassadors for the UK abroad.

Beyond the economic and reputational benefits, overseas students are attractive because a diverse campus makes positive contributions to the development of cross-cultural communication skills and the collective learning experience.Subjecting students to forms of surveillance reserved for convicted criminals and restructuring universities so that they more closely resemble prisons will not be perceived as an attractive environment for study. Moreover, for those who believe that migration is a problem, or that the number of foreign students in the UK is a problem, would it not better for this problem to be managed by professionals with appropriate resources, rather than rank amateurs operating on shoe-string budgets? For students, those supporting their studies, and the employers of graduates, would you rather see scarce resources directed towards improving learning outcomes and skills development in higher education or for these resources to be spent on implementing costly tracking systems whose purpose is political not educational?

Hopefully, the entrance of UK universities into border management will be a temporary affair. Unfortunately, the longer that these systems of surveillance exist, the more pernicious their influence will become on and off campus.