British universities are increasingly becoming hostile environments – even for students who have always lived in the UK

Barriers to entry for students with irregular status operate at the intersection of anti-immigration policies and the marketisation of higher education

Safieh Kabir
Monday 22 July 2019 15:16 BST
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Sajid Javid opposes 'hostile environment' approach to UK immigration opting instead for a 'compliant environment'

Like all areas of public life, now universities are subject to the increasing encroachment of the hostile environment.

A new University League published by People and Planet, which ranks UK universities according to ethical and environmental criteria, reveals that over 85 per cent of the sector fails to provide financial support to long-term UK residents with irregular immigration status.

The experiences behind these statistics are documented by organisations like Let Us Learn, and young people’s testimonies highlight the extent to which they encounter these barriers with surprise and grief. Having lived in the UK for the majority of their lives, they suddenly find themselves designated international students without access to student finance. There is a lack of transparency around their status and mountains of red tape to challenge refusal.

For young people with irregular migration status, such encounters are wearily familiar. They are the bureaucratic equivalent of barbed fences, and their incorporation into university admissions recruits the higher education sector into the implementation of the border regime. As a result, universities become another part of the general struggle to stay afloat within the "hostile environment".

The Windrush scandal bore witness to the ongoing racialised reconstitution of British citizenship, part of which seeks to erase the relationship between migration and the unequal legacies of the British empire. There was widespread horror at the arbitrariness and injustice with which individuals are being ripped from their rights within this process. The absence of appropriate status for these students is similarly the product of a constantly shifting and racialised legal terrain.

Individuals and families are often pursuing applications for Leave to Remain over increasingly long periods of time, with rising fees. Currently, applications for Limited Leave to Remain cost up to £8,500 over ten years. The government has cancelled legal aid for almost all immigration cases since 2013, increased NHS surcharges, and expanded the category of “no recourse to public funds’” such that more and more people cannot access fundamental government benefits.

Essentially, the status that determines access to university education lies on the other side of a constantly expanding obstacle course. Migrants and their families must scrape together money and time to navigate it while living in conditions of extreme precarity.

Young people and those supporting them incur devastating damages to their finances and well-being while trying to fight through every stage. It is easy for an individual with irregular status to be slid along the scale of exclusion to the abuses of detention or deportation. We must recognise that these damages are intentional; they are an integral part of the hostile environment. The intention is not only that migrants fail to reach their goal, but that they are inflicted with the kind of harm that will “deter” others.

We must also recognise that the restriction of the rights and access to public resources, such as education, of migrants is part of the process of restricting rights and access for us all. As writer Nisha Kapoor argues, the modes of policing and exclusion enacted upon those struggling at the peripheries of British citizenship are only the cutting edge of the process of redefining what constitutes citizenship in general.

Tuition fees, and particularly international tuition fees, have been established as a means of privately funding universities that have faced endless cuts from the government. Different fee statuses and refusing public financial support for students with irregular status operates at the intersection of anti-immigration policies and the marketisation of higher education to chart racialised limits around the claimants on public resources.

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The battle for migrants’ rights is a battle to expand our collective rights to public goods and well-being, to reject the dual neoliberal strategy of cutting services while “securing” borders. It is no accident that Boris Johnson proposes immense tax cuts for the wealthy while building a political platform around anti-immigration panic.

Now more than ever is the time for the student movement to fight back. In the shorter term, we fight for universities to be places of sanctuary and support. Our vision, however, entails the abolition of tuition fees and the hostile environment, and a publicly well-funded higher education sector that is a site of critical learning, not a proxy for the Home Office.

Safieh Kabir is the Undoing Borders Campaign Coordinator at People and Planet

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