Hampshire, twinned with the Swat Valley

Now I know I should not get too worked up about the standards of reporting in British local newspapers; that way madness lies.  But the article about ‘disappearing’ foreign students and supposed University culpability which appeared in the Southern Daily Echo last week (which I mentioned in my last post) and which was subsequently picked up by the Sun (almost verbatim)  exercised me somewhat. The article claims that in the last three years 2, 485 students failed to enrol at Hampshire universities after being given study visas to enter the country. It went on to say “… it is feared that many will be living in Britain and working in the black market or even involved in terrorism” and continued on to say that “One campaigner last night described student visas as a ‘gaping hole'”. Campaigner for which group exactly?

Aside from this claim being factually incorrect, the way in which it is reported is typical of the kind of shrill, reactionary, anti-foreigner guff that is all too common in the British press in respect to immigration/migration. It is also a massive non-story as it reacts to a problem that has already been tackled head on by both the UK Borders Agency (UKBA) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). Indeed, the visa issue has been tackled in such an overzelous way by the UKBA that it has potentially caused considerable damage to the UK’s image abroad and to revenue streams of UK Universities, but let’s deal with the press first shall we.

There is no evidence that these students got visas. Gaining an offer from  a University and getting a visa was not a foregone conclusion even under the old visa rules (i.e. prior to April 2009). So unless they got independent verification from the UKBA that each of those students gained a visa, which would have been impossible under the restrictions of the Data Protection Act, they are factually wrong.

Ok then, for argument’s sake let’s work on the assumption that a fair proportion did get a visa. It is understandable that people are concerned about illegal immigration, by definition it is ILLEGAL and for good reasons. But why make the immediate assumption that these students had a nefarious purpose in gaining an offer from the University? Involved in terrorism? That’s quite a leap to make. The government, itself a fine purveyor of knee jerk politics (ID cards anyone? extradition treaties anyone?), was clearly concerned about ALL visa processes and so it changed visa rules to a points based system. All good. But, I reject the assumption made by this paper and others that because these people are from non-EU countries that they are automatically terrorists and potential illegal immigrants. The fact is that most terrorist activity that happens in the UK has been bred out of  home grown terrorist cells on instruction from remote sources overseas. Terrorists don’t faff around getting nefarious student visas.  There is also no evidential basis for assuming that because they did not take up their place that they even used their visa to gain access to the country.

I guess the thing that concerns me most about articles like this is the potential impact it has on community relations. To put it simply, foreign students are often an easy target. The relationships that Universities have with their local community differs from place to place. However, most Universities work hard to not just keep things harmonious but to actually bring benefits to their immediate surroundings. Articles like this which whip up immigration concerns and spread innuendo about foreign students can only help but further reinforce negative stereotypes about University attitudes and foreign students motives. We should be proud that our Academies remain attractive to foreign students, they should be welcomed in as temporary visitors who bring cultural diversity to our intellectual community, but crap like this just lumps them in with all the other ‘johnny foreigners’ that play in the reactionaries mind. Way to encourage local cohesion.

I also reject the blame it puts on the Universities. In the comments section of the paper which follows on from the headline article we find this beauty: “it reveals the sheer careless way in which they [universities] have acted”. Not really. Universities, like all other businesses across the UK work under the immigration and visa rules that are currently active. These rules did not place the burden of responsibility on the University to report missing students. Simple fact. This was no different to the builders merchant, bank, hospital, newspaper or anywhere else that enabled non-EU nationals to gain visa entry into the UK. But of course under the Freedom of Information Act it’s easy to pick on publicly funded institutions, it’s harder to get the statistics from elsewhere. Also, I think there is an element of reverse snobbery in this kind of attack on Universities; ‘whoar, I don’t want my taxpayers money going on those scrounging, terrorist foreign students’. The fact is International students fund themselves via the large fees they pay (seriously they are pretty high…) and the reason that they are so large is that they represent the actual cost of educating that individual in the UK market. The sad fact is that foreign students are what prop up the underfunded UK Higher Education sector.

Indeed, the University sector has always been cautious about terrorism, particularly given the sensitive nature of some of the subjects and training offered; nuclear engineering anyone? Yep it’s the ones that turn up we should be worried about. But even there UK Universities have always acted responsibly, participating in the Voluntary Vetting Scheme, which as the name indicates was a voluntary scheme by which universities raised concern with the Home Office when suspicious characters applied for certain programmes. Of course, this was a ludicrous scheme, which was massively open to abuse, but it was the only scheme in place and universities participated. This leads me on to my final point. These articles about ‘missing’ students have cropped up precisely when the UK government has actually done something about the issue. But rather than pick up on the positives the press pick up on the problem that is now largely solved.

The FCO replaced the Voluntary Vetting Scheme in 2007 with the snappily titled Academic Technology Approval Scheme (ATAS) which actually made it compulsory for ALL non-EU nationals applying for certain sensitive subjects (Biological Science, Engineering, Chemistry, Physics, English Literature… ok, not English Literature, and many more) to apply additionally for a special pre-visa vetting scheme. Without approval via this scheme the applicant could not even apply for a visa let alone get one.  This scheme is potentially much more important than non-attending applicants.

The UKBA brought in it’s new points based system visa system in April 2009. This ties visas to a particular course at a particular government approved sponsored Institution. Once issued there are set guidelines about how and when universities must report to the UKBA not just those that don’t turn up, but those that fail to meet attendance monitoring guidelines throughout the academic term. Sheesh, the hardest thing is convincing the poor sods that we really want them here, and I’ll probably touch on that in a later post.

So, shock horror reactionary local journalist in tabloid story shock horror. But the thing is this kind of nonsense should be challenged, I hope to see those Universities involved make their case to the press complaints commission, but I suspect the damage to the local community is already done, and that is the real shame.

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