Student Tourism: A Murky Chapter of British Immigration History

22/08/2012 16:11 BST | Updated 22/10/2012 10:12 BST

Patrick Kirkham, a student at Pembroke College, Cambridge, writes:

Avid readers of the Huffington Post may have noticed an article that was published at the end of July that detailed a report by anti-immigration group Migration Watch which found that 60,000 "bogus" students entered the UK in 2011, a whopping 44% of all incoming overseas students last year. Many enrolled in colleges similar to the 172 in south-east England which were last year closed by the Home Office, after being widely denounced as scams.

It is alleged that these "students" in fact intended to work in Britain, and may plan to settle permanently. Sir Andrew Green, chief executive of Migration Watch, remarked in true Daily Mail style that "bogus students come here to work illegally and thus take jobs from British workers." The former diplomat laments the lack of pre-arrival interviewing by the home office, whilst trying his utmost to portray these foreign students as thieving enemies of UK citizens. Several journalists also used language likely to stigmatise these 60,000 visa-holders. Newspapers have often criticised the students themselves in preference of the legal loopholes and untrustworthy educational establishments that facilitated their journey to Britain. The authors of these articles, of course, are unlikely to have met a single one of these students. I have.

Following an unusual turn of events, I shared a house for two years with four South-East Asian women who had obtained these visas, thus giving me a unique insight into a lifestyle very different to my own. As these people are now very close family friends, I confess an emotional investment in this issue. It is also important to emphasise that all four were here entirely legally, even if they were following the letter rather than the spirit of the law. Each had arrived in the UK hoping to learn money; college enrolment was merely a necessary inconvenience.

Before condemning these people as job-stealing deviants, it is advisable to contextualise. All four women had replied to agency adverts in their home country, which promised employment in England. Such agencies charge thousands of pounds in administrative fees, a sizeable amount for any Briton but a veritable fortune when your country's average monthly salary is under $200. Upon arrival in England, armed with only an address, each had to traverse this foreign land alone to find their new "home". After being informed of their working hours, they were left in their new, cramped accommodation to spend their first lonely night in an unfamiliar and unwelcoming city.

One had left four children in the care of her parents as she and her husband had been forced abroad in their search for work. Another, an industrious finance graduate, had to wave goodbye to her husband and two children for the same reason, knowing she would not see them for almost 750 long days, a sacrifice she made in order to fund their education. A third, too, would be thousands of miles from the children she was trying to support whilst the fourth came to finance her brother's medical training.

English life proved far from paradisiacal. Initially charged astronomical rent for accommodation which was not commercially leasable, they were forced to work obscene hours on a low salary, with breaks unpaid and bonuses for weekend or night shifts lacking. Additionally, and reflecting the dire state of our elderly care, staff-to-patient ratios were often illegal, making intense work even more exhausting. Each week required the 100-mile journey to college where they were forced to study for a meaningless care qualification, even though three were highly trained nurses. The colleges were corrupt organisations, demanding unjustifiable payments at every opportunity. One even made a spurious demand for several thousand pounds the day before it was shut down. At home, though, I never heard a word of complaint. Perpetually smiling, they were simply happy to have employment, something which had become a luxury in their country. By coincidence, a relative of mine was resident in their nursing home, meaning I saw first-hand their indefatigable work-ethic. They provided high calibre care, something often not emulated by their British co-workers, who could be lazy and inattentive.

As the expiry date on a visa drew closer, the reaction was invariable. Although they sincerely longed to see their families, and in spite of the difficulties England presented, imminent departure always precipitated intense sadness. Incidentally, each left slightly before their parting was legally required. Throughout their stay they were all model citizens and paid every penny of tax that was due. I cannot recall a day where they missed work and the pressures they exerted on the health service were nonexistent.

Anecdotal evidence may hold limited currency, but the statistics show that 80% of such students return before their residence becomes illegal. Perhaps, however, this percentage remains unsatisfactory and though I may understand their motives, I do not defend the fifth of students that linger behind. Yet understanding the lives behind the statistics is important, and the stories of my friends are probably typical of those demonised, "bogus" students.

Immigration will forever be a complicated and divisive issue. Damian Green has announced a review of student tourism, and has additionally closed many of the shadowy organisations that professed to be educational establishments, meaning stories like those of my former housemates will become less common. Who is it, though, that deserves criticism for their role in thus murky chapter of British immigration history? The immoral agencies in foreign countries, which bankrupt those they pretend to aid? The care homes that exploit cheap foreign labour and encourage working conditions likely to harm the residents whose savings they plunder? How about the questionable colleges which fleeced thousands from their vulnerable students, or the politicians that permitted them to do so? The answer, I believe, is all of the above. It is most certainly not the students themselves, bogus or not, who come to our country under difficult, unenviable circumstances and pay dearly for the privilege.

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