01/10/2012 07:12 BST | Updated 30/11/2012 05:12 GMT

Malignment of International Students at Westminster Must End

A campaign aimed at supporting London Metropolitan University and international students was recently launched by the National Union of Students, a campaign in which I happily contributed, writing emails to the Members of Parliament who hold constituencies in Northern Ireland.

Explaining the seriousness of the current situation I hoped that our MP's would share particularly strong views of admonishment toward UKBA after its revocation of London Met's highly trusted status, especially given Northern Ireland has a particularly good record with International students. Indeed the Belfast Telegraph recently reported that International students find Northern Ireland "welcoming and friendly" which only goes to show that our MP's should be adamantly standing up for their rights throughout the UK.

This year I volunteered as a buddy for International students at my current university here in Belfast which is allowing me insight into the first hand experiences of many students. While the social aspect for Erasmus and non-EU students is overwhelmingly positive, I have witnessed the fear, panic and worry over the actions and message the UK government is sending to international students through UKBA's actions. Several students have approached me in panic over problems with our universities immigration office, I think it would be accurate to say the crisis at London Met is having a ripple effect, leaving many students with massive concerns which I believe our representatives in Westminster should be acknowledging and addressing rather than hiding from like cowards.

International students from all around Britain have expressed concerns as to whether they are actually welcome to study in the UK - a feeling that has grown ever stronger since conservative Prime Minister David Cameron announced his commitment to reduce immigration from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands during his 2010 general election campaign.

Targeting international students is seen as easy, successive government reforms have made international students feel unwelcome - a sentiment that is formed by the existence of massive delays for in-country visa applications, continually rising visa application fees, and the malignment of these students in bureaucratic process that frustrates and flusters vulnerable young people whom put their trust in anyone who presents themselves as helpful during difficult times.

A result of all this is that Internationals are no longer proud to have studied in the UK - A recent National Union of Students (NUS) survey of more than 900 international students found that 40% of students would not recommend studying in the UK to a friend.

Having used the NUS campaign I asked all eighteen Northern Ireland MP's to publicly oppose the government's decision, and to oppose the continued malignment of international students no matter where they are within our borders.

Responses so far have been shocking to say the least as the first reply I received from Jeffrey Donaldson, the Democratic Unionist Party MP for the Lagan Valley, was more like reading a right wing trope from one of the many media outlets that have tried to demonise all international students in recent years.

In an email exchange between me and Mr Donaldson he said that UKBA's decision undoubtedly has negative consequences but went on further to state "it would be wrong to ignore the practices that have resulted in the loss of the 'Highly Trusted Status'".

Quoting Immigration Minister Damian Green's citation of London Metropolitan University having failed in three particular areas:

  1. More than a quarter of the 101 students sampled were studying at the university when they had no leave to remain in this country
  2. Some 20 of 50 checked files found "no proper evidence" that the students' mandatory English levels had been reached
  3. And some 142 of 250 (57%) sampled records had attendance monitoring issues, which meant it was impossible for the university to know whether students were turning up for classes or not.

Not only does he ignore LMU's legal challenge against the decision itself but also fails to recognise that most international students are not represented in the statistics given.

I find that such statistics leave us with massive questions given this data has only been shared in private and not released to the public. Am I the only one who feels statistics from 101 sampled students being used to make decisions is questionable? How were these students selected in the sampling process? Can these student figures be said to represent the wider population of foreign students?

Regarding attendance - I find it inherently flawed to base any decisions on visas upon attendance records, I am obviously a UK student and my attendance record for last year was abysmal yet I passed my exams and I'm still at university, why aren't international students held to the same standards I am and assessed on academic ability?

UKBA may have recently given temporary reprieve to LMU but the wider phenomenon of anti-international student ideology seems rife among many of our MP's given Jeffrey Donaldson's latter remarks:

As a member of the Privy Council and the Defence Committee in the House of Commons, I am intimately aware that extremists posing as students have used our lax immigration checks in the past to enter this country and then to plan serious terrorist attacks. The Government would be failing every UK citizen if it ignored the inadequate practices at London Metropolitan and turned a blind eye.

Is Mr Donaldson seriously trying to justify the crisis at LMU by regurgitating such a stigmatised attack on International Students?

What really got me is that he also placed blame squarely with the university as he wrote

"It is a valid argument to suggest that the response is disproportionate but, having regard to the apparent failing to comply with their legal duty, can it really be said of London Met that they justify being accorded 'Highly Trusted Status'? Surely the onus is on the university to get their act together and then apply for HTS to be reinstated?"

This of course ignores the reality of those legitimate students affected by the governments' decision whilst collectively and prematurely punishing students for what remains a contested issue over procedure with failings that aren't the fault of students but rather that of LMU or more likely UKBA.

Let us hope that these ripples don't turn into a Tsunami, what would happen if UKBA targeted more universities, perhaps one in Northern Ireland? - Arguably a far easier place to launch an attack on international students.

We simply must challenge and put an end to the deliberate malignment of International students at Westminster, they are not the fall guys for Cameron's promised reduction in immigration. Its time our MPs stood up for our students!