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UK universities being broken by border control measures

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Updated The law of unintended consequences has arrived in full force on British campuses, as government policies designed to control immigration turn academic staff into state informers and impose draconian surveillance on UK students and academics.

That is the conclusion of a report out this week from the Manifesto Club entitled Fortress Academy (pdf). It details the operation of the new points-based immigration system, and the effect it is having on UK Colleges and other academic institutions.

The points-based visa system was introduced across UK universities on 31 March 2009, and imposed a series of burdensome requirements for non-EU students and academics coming to study or teach in the UK. These included an increase in visa application fees, demands for biometric details, to be used for issuing an ID card once the students are in the UK, a licensing system for all educational institutions that wish to accept international students, and a range of monitoring duties imposed on all higher education institutions, including monitoring foreign student and staff attendance.

According to the report, the way in which these restrictions have been imposed by the UK Borders Agency (UKBA) is having a disastrous and distorting effect on British institutions.

It claims an increase in late arrivals and no-shows of international students for the academic year 2009-10, a 100 per cent increase in visa refusals for international students, between April-May 2009, and 14,000 would-be students still stuck in Pakistan when term started in October 2009.

The report cites cases of international academics unable to attend the UK to teach their regular courses or seminars; UK universities, including the Glasgow School of Art and Nottingham Trent University, reporting difficulties putting together international lecture series; and some international academics now choosing not to visit the UK.

Sam Ainsley, senior lecturer in fine art at Glasgow School of Art, stated: "We are currently engaged in organising radio interviews with visiting artists, a symposium with visiting artists and a major retrospective exhibition of art from Glasgow involving artists who now live abroad. All of this is put at risk by this astonishingly short sighted and ill-conceived piece of unnecessary bureaucracy."

The monitoring requirements that go hand in hand with this new set of rules are placing added burdens on universities. For instance, staff must check international student attendance whilst if a student fails to attend 10 "expected interactions" (seminars, lectures, tutor meetings, etc), the professor is obliged to report them to the UKBA.

This is just one of a number of circumstances where academics and university staff are now being required by law to act as government informants.

However, it is in respect of the effect on home-grown students that these new regulations are having a serious unintended impact. In order not to breach the race relations act by imposing checking systems that are discriminatory, universities are putting in place surveillance mechanisms, such as central registers and systems to log the activities of students and academics, that are applied to all students irrespective of their country of origin.

Sheffield and Queen Mary have set up electronic registers for all students, to monitor attendance. Over at the University of Wales at Lampeter, this checking process has extended to staff, with the university requiring all staff to submit legal documents to establish whether they have the right to work in the UK. The University of Glamorgan is even alleged to have devised a tag – called "uni-nanny" - to be worn by students on campus.

Academics are scathing of this policy. According to Michael Farthing, vice chancellor, Sussex University: "Shut the door to this potential, and all the opportunities that the 21st-century global village has to offer will be denied to our students, the education sector and the wider economy."

As policy goes, this is a double whammy. According to Matthew Fuller, a reader at Goldsmiths, University of London, the checks will be reasonably easy to evade by would-be terrorists.

However, as many academics write: the system being put in place is insensitive to the needs of UK universities, and could do real long-term damage to the UK economy and its international reputation as a centre for learning excellence.

According to a spokeswoman for UKBA Home Secretary Alan Johnson has said: "The Points Based System was introduced to provide a rigorous system to manage legitimate access to the UK to work and study, with the ability to respond to changing circumstances.

"We want foreign students to come here to study, not to work illegally, and today we have set out necessary steps which will maintain the robustness of the system we introduced last year. I make no apologies for that.” ®

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