Tom Slater

Edinburgh University staff are now under surveillance, thanks to the Home Office

Edinburgh University staff are now under surveillance, thanks to the Home Office
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Widows and Orphans

Michael Arditti

Arcadia, pp. 351, £

Another British university has been revealed as a mini GDR. And this time it’s not the fault of those speech-policing students’ unions. The University of Edinburgh – which recently hit headlines after its students association banned head-shaking – has been slammed for an Orwellian new practice designed to keep tabs on its staff.

Under a new scheme, reported in Times Higher Education, university staff will be required to report their whereabouts ‘when officially at work, but not in their normal place of work’. The provisions, originally meant to apply only to staff from outside the EU, have been extended to all 13,000 employees, in an effort to ensure they are applied in a ‘fair and proportionate’ manner. One staff member told THE that he was disappointed the reporting policy would 'even apply when staff are visiting different parts of the university campus, such as the library or a colleague’s office'.

At first glance, this bizarre plan sounds like the brainchild of the sort of petty bureaucrats and form-fillers who have colonised modern academic life. But, in fact, this is the work of the UK Home Office. Under the conditions of Tier 2 and Tier 5 working visas, universities are required to put in place reporting mechanisms to monitor non-EU staff. Though the university’s decision to roll out this scheme to all staff was unique – the invasiveness of these restrictions was not.

In recent years, foreign-born academics in the UK have faced an increasingly precarious existence. Not only do many of them work on short-term, or even zero-hour, contracts, but attaining a working visa in the first place has become increasingly tricky. They have to go through lengthy and costly application processes – which they are often required to complete in their home country. This makes applying for stable, long-term work incredibly difficult. Even when foreign applicants are successful, their jobs still have to be advertised to EU applicants.

UK academia is an international business. According to HEFCE, as much as a quarter of UK academics are foreign-born. International students’ tuition fees, for which universities can more or less charge what they like, account for around an eighth of universities’ income. Universities minister Jo Johnson intends to increase education exports to £30 billion by 2020, and yet the UK is becoming more and more hostile to those looking to study here.

The prospect for international students under the current government is particularly bleak. In 2012, the Home Office scrapped the post-study work visa, and since then the fetters have only tightened. Last year, Theresa May announced a suite of new conditions, including restrictions on international students doing low-skilled work during their studies, a hike in the amount of money they must have saved up before they arrive and a new tougher approach to those who ‘abuse’ the system.

May initiated a crackdown on student visas in 2014, after a Panorama report uncovered a scam at a single East London college – foreign students were being sold English-language qualifications, a requirement of their visa, off the shelf. As a result, as many as 19,000 foreign students were rounded up and deported on the suspicion that they, too, had cheated. But it was soon revealed that May had almost no evidence, other than the fact these students all took the same test.

At an immigration tribunal last month, two students, who had been subject to dawn raids and more or less treated like jihadists by the UK Border Agency, won an appeal, opening the door for thousands more to contest the Home Office’s decision. One of the appellants, Pakistani-born Ihsan Qadir, was praised by the tribunal for his ‘careful, pensive’ manner and ‘intelligible’ response to questioning. Clearly his English wasn’t all that bad.

International students and academics have found themselves caught between two key government pledges: to boost growth and to reduce immigration. They’ve become a political football, and in the ensuing kickabout between Osborne, Johnson and May, international scholars are being rinsed for all their worth, while their rights are being curtailed again and again.

Higher education is about the free flow of ideas – about a global process of producing and renewing knowledge. Edging out outsiders will only clip the horizons of the UK academy. But, more profoundly, anyone coming to work and live in a free society should not expect to be submitted to surveillance, extortion and deportation even when they do exactly as their told.

This is a species of campus authoritarianism we need to reckon with.

Tom Slater is deputy editor at spiked.