International students: Welcome to the hostile environment

14 Mins read

Theresa May was two years into her job as Home Secretary when she announced a new approach to immigration. In May 2012, she told the Telegraph: “The aim is to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigration.”

Put simply, May’s strategy was to make life in the UK as difficult as possible for unlawful migrants by denying them access to a number of basic services, including health care and education, opening a bank account and renting a property.

When the “hostile environment” was officially instituted by means of the Immigration Acts passed in 2014 and 2016, its modus operandi became fairly clear; the new immigration policies turned regular citizens into plain-clothes law enforcers by asking them to collect personal data about migrants and share it with the Home Office.

Predictably, the higher education system wasn’t spared. In fact, it was one of the first sectors where the Home Office actively “outsourced” immigration checks.

As far back as 2012, universities across the country were required to engage in substantial monitoring of both international students and staff (officially known as Tier 4 and Tier 2 migrants respectively).

In particular, with regard to the former, institutions were asked to record non-EU nationals’ attendance through electronic registers or mobile apps and to report any potential breach of immigration conditions to the Home Office. Failure to do so could result in the university’s Tier 4 sponsorship licence being revoked.

The facade of London Metropolitan University's Moorgate building photographed from across the street.

London Metropolitan University was the first British institution to lose its Tier 4 sponsorship licence after failing to adequately monitor its international students [Flickr: Robert Cutts]

Following the implementation of these measures, a chronic fear of falling short of the Home Office’s demands spread through the university sector, leading to cases of blatant over-compliance. For instance, in 2013 the University of Sunderland and Ulster University increased on-campus surveillance to Orwellian proportions by introducing fingerprint scanning as a way to record international students’ attendance.

By the time those procedures were put in place, the hostile environment had already taken its first, heavy toll. In August 2012, London Metropolitan University’s Tier 4 licence was revoked after evidence of “systemic failure” in monitoring international students was found. Following the event, around 3,000 students were allowed 60 days to get accepted into another institution before becoming liable to deportation. Subsequently, hundreds of students were left without a course and had to return to their home country.

Ever since then, a plethora of other incidents have exposed the detrimental impact of the hostile environment policies on international students. In particular, a number of foreign nationals have been unfairly threatened with deportation and withdrawn from their university courses.

This was the case for Ahmed Sedeeq, an Iraqi PhD student at the University of Sheffield.

Ahmed came to the UK in 2013 on a Tier 4 visa. In 2014, when ISIS seized control of his home town Mosul, displacing more than 500,000 civilians, he applied for asylum.

However, his application was inexplicably rejected and so was his subsequent appeal. In spite of that, Ahmed retained his right to remain in the country as a student visa holder and continued working on his PhD.

Iraqi PhD student Ahmed Sedeeq is captured on the pitch of the Santiago Bernabeu, the home stadium of Spanish football team Real Madrid.

Ahmed is a fan of Spanish football team Real Madrid. Here he is pictured on the ground of the Santiago Bernabeu, Real Madrid’s home stadium. [Ahmed Sedeeq]

On Monday, December 18, 2017, following a well-established routine (he was duty-bound to sign in with the Home Office once every two weeks), Ahmed went to report to the UK Visa and Immigration (UKVI) offices at Vulcan House in Sheffield.

As it had happened dozens of times before, he had to go through the regular questions and checks (name, home address, phone number etc). Unlike all prior occasions though, he wasn’t dismissed at the end of the interview.

“[The officer] said that he wanted to ask me some more questions,” Ahmed said. “After that, he took me to another room and told me that I was under arrest because I didn’t have the lawful papers to remain in the UK. He also told me that I would soon be deported.”

[pullquote align=”right”]”In my wing, there were 24 cells and two toilets. Besides that, it was difficult to sleep at night due to prison checks.“[/pullquote]

The arrest came as a shock to Ahmed, who couldn’t possibly make sense of why he had been detained. Only later would he would find out that back in 2014, disregarding the instructions given by the Immigration and Asylum court, the Home Office had curtailed his student visa and failed to inform him of their decision. Due to the Home Office’s negligence, Ahmed had ended up overstaying his student visa, which is why, in December 2017, he was taken into custody pending his removal from the UK.

On the day of his arrest, after spending seven hours in the lock-up at Vulcan House, Ahmed was transferred to Morton Hall Immigration Centre in Lincoln. Although the living conditions inside British deportation centres have long been documented as bordering on inhumane, Morton Hall has generally been regarded as the UK’s most brutal immigration centre and was the site of four detainees’ deaths between 2016 and 2017.

Ahmed’s account of his detention inside Morton Hall corroborated the centre’s claim to infamy: “In my wing, there were 24 cells and two toilets. Besides that, it was difficult to sleep at night due to prison checks. Every night, all of a sudden, an officer would open the cell’s door and point a flashlight straight to my face.”

Sleep-deprived and malnourished, Ahmed soon fell ill, but didn’t receive any medical care: “I asked to see a doctor but I was told that it would take two weeks to get an appointment. In the end, two paracetamol tablets were all I was given.”

To make matters even worse, the University of Sheffield deactivated Ahmed’s student account shortly after being informed of his incarceration. The university’s decision prevented the Iraqi national from retrieving some of the documents he was asked to produce for the Home Office and this also temporarily stripped him of his Tier 4 sponsor.

“That was the lowest moment I had and it led to some dark thoughts at the time. I was really vulnerable and I thought the university would back me up.” Luckily, just as the situation took a turn for the worse, he was released, and found there had been significant public support for his case while he was detained.

A Change.org petition had been created by one of his closest friends, Alvin Pastore, and received 10,000 signatures. By the end of Ahmed’s legal case, it had been endorsed by more than 70,000 people.

In addition to the online petition, a letter drawn up by activist group Unis Resist Border Controls (URBC) and signed by more than 300 academics over the Christmas period pressured the University of Sheffield to reopen Ahmed’s student account. Eventually, on January 3, 2018, the institution reinstated Ahmed on his Software Engineering PhD course.

Iraqi PhD student Ahmed Sedeeq and the former Lord Mayor of Sheffield, Magid Magid, at a BBQ party held in August 2018 to raise funds for the #LetAhmedStay campaign.

In August 2018, the then-Lord Mayor of Sheffield, Magid Magid (left), publicly supported Ahmed (right) by attending a fundraiser for the #LetAhmedStay campaign [Ahmed Sedeeq]

Unfortunately, the Iraqi student’s battle with the Home Office was nowhere near its conclusion. Still liable to deportation, Ahmed applied for discretionary leave to remain and also put in a fresh asylum claim. After both applications were rejected, he proceeded to appeal against the court’s decision to deny him asylum.

More than 16 months after being released from Morton Hall Immigration Centre, Ahmed eventually saw the light at the end of the tunnel. On April 26, the PhD student won his appeal and was granted five-year humanitarian protection.

Today Ahmed is working hard to complete his PhD, which he can now, finally, devote his full attention to. However, to this day he is still affected by his lengthy fight with the Home Office: “I can’t deny that they caused me huge personal trauma which I’m still suffering from now.”

Ahmed’s ordeal is just one of numerous cases where a “guilty until proven innocent” approach on the part of the Home Office has had a severe impact on the life of international students or staff.

Since 2016, Unis Resist Border Controls (URBC), a collective of students, lecturers and university workers fighting against the “surveillance and intimidation of migrants” within higher education, has offered crucial support to all those who have been wrongfully detained by the UKVI.

[pullquote align=”right”]“International students bring in a lot of money and universities don’t want to lose that money, so they’ll comply with everything the Home Office throws at them.”[/pullquote]

In particular, URBC has been instrumental in stopping the deportation of a number of international students, including Shiromini Satkunarajah, Luqman Onikosi and is currently at work to halt the removal of PhD student Adriana Ortega Zeifert and researcher Furaha Asani.

As well as offering aid to the victims of the hostile environment in higher education, URBC also regularly organises talks and workshops across universities in order to help students and staff understand how immigration policies operate on campus and to provide them with the practical tools necessary to fight invasive surveillance and discrimination. The primary goal of these initiatives is to stop universities from “colluding with the border controls culture.”

According to Sanaz Raji, founder of URBC and herself a casualty of the hostile environment, British universities are complicit in the enforcement of the government’s immigration laws: “Universities UK (who represent British higher education establishments), could definitely push back on pervasive levels of immigration controls on campus, but they choose not to.”

She says the reason for that is simple: it is estimated that international students’ fees, which are generally three times higher than those of home and EU students, pay for about a quarter of British universities’ total teaching expenses (this includes the costs of staff, equipment and other teaching services).

Pie chart showing how British universities' teaching income was funded in the academic year 2014/2015. The chart is divided in the following way: 47%, UK and EU undergraduate students; 23% non-EU fees; 18%, government sources; 7%, UK and EU postgraduate fees; 5%, other grants.

In the academic year 2014-2015, international students’ fees were the second biggest source of teaching income for British universities.

It comes as no surprise that most, if not all, academic institutions are terrified of being stripped of their Tier 4 sponsorship licence. “International students bring in a lot of money and universities don’t want to lose that money, so they’ll comply with everything the Home Office throws at them in order to show that they’re above board in their practices,” Sanaz explained.

British universities’ reliance on international students’ fees and their simultaneous compliance with the Home Office’s policies have created a dangerous situation. Every year institutions lure large numbers of international students into the UK on account of their extraordinary financial value, but then do little to keep some of them from being sacrificed on the altar of immigration law.

In Sanaz’s view, there is only one way to break this vicious circle: “Universities are powerful institutions and need to use their powers. We’ve seen that across the pond, where universities are listening to activist groups and are actively resisting law enforcement and racism. I think the same should happen in the UK.”

Over the past few years, very rarely have British universities used the powers Sanaz speaks of to oppose the Home Office’s policies and challenge their decisions. Looking at the most notable events that have occurred from 2016 onwards, the URBC believes it’s easy to see how many universities have had their fair share of responsibility in cases where international students or staff members were harmed by the hostile environment.

In Ahmed’s case, for instance, the University of Sheffield withdrew the Iraqi student from his PhD course as soon as they were informed of his incarceration, a decision that aggravated his immigration status and had a severe impact on his mental health.

“The University of Sheffield’s Student Support staff were in regular contact with both Ahmed and his solicitor as soon as we were made aware of the case, including liaising with his legal advisers throughout the Christmas period in 2017,” a spokesperson told Artefact.

“Once the University received confirmation of Ahmed’s immigration status, we were legally able to restore his university registration and continued to support him in resuming his studies. We also provided Ahmed the opportunity to meet with support staff to discuss his case in more detail.”

However Sanaz still believes the institution bears some responsiblity for the student’s ordeal: “The university showed no concern as to whether their actions would make Ahmed’s status more precarious, which they eventually did. They completely washed their hands of the issue in the situation.”

In a simkilar case more recently, the University of Manchester has been heavily criticised for its response in handling the case of Mexican PhD student Adriana Ortega Zeifert.

University of Manchester's monumental Gothic entrance. Above the arched portal cast metal letters spell the name of the institution.

The University of Manchester was awarded University of Sanctuary status in July 2019 but its handling of students’ immigration issues has recently come under heavy scrutiny. [Flickr:Vita Student]

Back in 2016, Adriana accidentally failed to mail the physical copies of her visa extension papers to the Home Office as a result of “mental health issues brought on by years of sexual, emotional and financial abuse” at the hands of her former partner and father of her three children. Later, when she realised her oversight, she promptly notified the University of Manchester of her situation.

Despite this, the university proceeded to withdraw Adriana from her course, depriving her of her Tier 4 sponsor and further undermining her well-being. The PhD student and her daughters have since been made subject to removal by the Home Office, whose decision is now being challenged in court.

Commenting on Adriana’s case, a spokesperson for the University of Manchester said: “We understand this must be an extremely difficult time for Adriana and her family. As an institution, however, we can only follow the immigration rules set out by the Government [and] are legally required to take steps to ensure that every student at our institution has the right to study in the UK throughout the period of their studies. Since Adriana was unable to provide evidence of valid immigration permission or an in-time application for a visa extension, we could not maintain her registration.”

Regardless of their obligation to act in accordance with the Home Office’s directives, URBC believes the institution should have done more to protect Adriana. “The University of Manchester could and should have provided pastoral care, especially given that Adriana had taken an interruption from her studies because of mental health issues. I mean, had they contacted the Home Office and explained Adriana’s circumstances to them, I think we wouldn’t be in the situation we are today.”

Instead of doing that, the university preferred “shirking and then using immigration policy to wash their hands and say: ‘Well, that’s what was asked of us by the Home Office’.”

The official logo of the University of Sanctuary Award: two stylised figures (a man on the left and a woman on the right) hold their hands together and raise them above their heads. Both figures are surrounded by a laurel wreath. Below the latter, there are the following words: "University of Sanctuary Award: welcoming asylum seekers and refugees."

In order to become Universities of Sanctuary, institutions need to “learn, embed and share” a culture of hospitality for those escaping war and persecution.

The University of Manchester’s actions (or inaction) are all the more surprising considering that in July 2019 the institution was granted University of Sanctuary status. The award is given by City of Sanctuary, a charity promoting a culture of hospitality for people fleeing from violence and persecution, to universities that provide a number of services (scholarships, concessions, incentives etc) aimed at welcoming sanctuary-seeking individuals into their courses and supporting them both on- and off-campus.

The University of Manchester isn’t the only University of Sanctuary to have acted in a questionable way when managing immigration issues of this sort. The University of Sheffield is on the list of participants, as is the University of Leicester, who have been criticised over the support given to Furaha Asani, a young researcher liable to be deported to the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country she’s never even stepped foot in. In a statement published in October 2019, the university said “We have been in close contact with Furaha and are continuing to do everything we can to support her.”

According to Sanaz, these types of incidents sum up the hypocrisy currently pervading the Higher Education system: “Universities are trying to look like places that are engaged in diversity and are supporting marginalised people, but they also comply with the hostile environment and they have been doing so for many years. It’s not enough to say, ‘We are decolonising the curriculum’ or ‘We are international’ when you’re implementing policies that make life incredibly hard for migrants.”

Over the past few years, this seemingly contradictory conduct whereby universities do everything they can to attract international students and then leave them vulnerable by complying with the hostile environment has taken its toll, leaving scores of foreign nationals high and dry.

However, not all British universities engage in this type of behaviour, according to Peter Rees, an associate lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London with a specialisation in citizens’ rights and migration: “Some universities are doing the best they can: they have scholarships for refugees, refugee awareness weeks, free language courses for migrants and so on. There’s lots of good stuff going on at the moment.”

[pullquote align=”right”]“There are cases where universities are very quick to report students to the Home Office and, to be honest, they are not uncommon.”[/pullquote]

Peter also stresses how problematic it is for institutions to do a good job in the current environment: “Within the broader structural climate, it’s hard for universities to be a really welcoming place. Legally speaking, universities could potentially not comply [with the hostile environment], but if they want to be Tier 4 sponsors, they have to. That means that anything that might affect international students’ visas, they have to report it to the Home Office.”

Regardless of this, URBC believe the existence of cases of blatant over-compliance is undeniable. “There are cases where universities are very quick to report students to the Home Office and, to be honest, they are not uncommon,” Peter said.

Lately, over-compliance with the Home Office’s policies in Higher Education has been the subject of a considerable amount of academic research. In particular, a number of studies have attempted to come up with procedures that might prevent institutions from over-reporting students to the UKVI.

“There needs to be a set of criteria, a framework in place that guarantees that universities, by default, do the minimum possible compliance. For instance, there needs to be a guideline to decide whether universities can keep students having visa issues enrolled for a certain period of time,” Peter told us.

Regardless of whether these types of measures will be introduced in the future or not, what remains of the essence is that all British universities have adequate forms of support in place for international students.

In particular, these should not be limited to learning aid but should also include incentives to inclusion and legal assistance in matters concerning immigration: “Universities need to do a better job at taking care of international students. International students have specific needs and each institution has a responsibility to cater to those,” Peter said.

Unis Resist Border Controls' logo: a stylised student in graduation attire clings to a wire fence. The words "UNIS RESIST BORDER CONTROLS" are laid over the fence.

Through a number of workshops and conferences, Unis Resist Border Controls regularly provides universities with practical guidance on how to support international students.

Indeed, this is a crucial step in the creation of a higher education system where international students can thrive without any impediment, whether that takes the form of social exclusion, stigmatisation or outright discrimination.

The benefits of having international talent across British academia are countless and include not only long-term financial returns but also significant social and cultural improvements. However, that international talent needs to be nurtured and regularly sustained or else the advantages associated with it are likely to dwindle.

Indeed, there is sufficient evidence that British higher education is increasingly failing to foster foreign ‘brains’ due to an academic environment where international students and researchers are often regarded purely as economic assets (or “cash cows” if you prefer the business jargon) and from which they’re liable to be readily ejected whenever immigration laws require.

These questionable attitudes on the part of British universities are not exclusively detrimental to international students though. In fact, their long-term effects on universities’ finances might well be as bad as the  budgetary consequences of resisting the Home Office’s policies.

[pullquote align=”right”]There is sufficient evidence that British higher education is growingly failing to foster foreign ‘brains’.[/pullquote]

Indeed, the publicity about students who fakll foul of the hostile environment has a significant impact on universities’ international appeal, especially when they are extensively covered by the media. In the long run, this might curb the stream of international students into the UK and, in turn, cause financial problems for British higher education.

That being said, it seems very likely that the status quo will undergo a substantial “shake-up” in the next 12 months. Notably, the recently-elected Tory government will introduce fresh policies concerning both education and immigration.

Based on the pledges made by Boris Johnson during the last election campaign, the chances that the new measures will improve the situation international students and staff currently find themselves in are zero (and would likely be even less than that if only probability theory allowed it).

However, the extent to which these will further aggravate the present climate is impossible to tell. By Spring 2020, it should be possible to draw up a projection of how the new government’s strategies will affect Tier 2 and Tier 4 holders.

Until then, those supporting international student hope that the hostile environment policies won’t do any more damage than they already have.




Featured Image courtesy of Natalia Nesterenko via Adobe Stock

Edited by: Kesia Evans.

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