Extending the Surveillance State


If the government can’t do it, they get the teachers to. It’s an old trick of state regulation, and it only works if the teaching class prefers compliancy over independence. In the British sense, the latest round of co-opting teachers into monitoring students and their immigration credentials has brought the issue to a head.

On Monday, more than 160 academics wrote to The Guardian1, claiming that, “A pernicious new turn took place in 2012 when London Metropolitan University lost its ‘highly trusted sponsor’ status, to catastrophic effect for students in the middle of their courses.” According to the letter, British academics since 2012 have become, effectively, “preoccupied with managing accountability demanded by UK Visas and Immigration (formerly the UK Border Agency), and, in effect, have become its proxy.”

Under the Cameron government, over 700 colleges have been banned from taking in students from outside the EU. A range of measures have been further introduced, be it through testing in the English language or means testing.

Various techniques are encouraged in the policy of using teachers as immigration shock troops, be it overtly or by stealth. Mechanisms of “pastoral care” are employed, which stress the monitoring of student attendance and meetings with tutors. On the surface, this all seems fairly innocuous, but they are hardly designed for the welfare of students. Non-EU students, which have become a sub-category to be monitored with greater vigilance, are the target of this policy.

Other mechanisms have become standard fare: the use of biometric scanning and electronic means of signing in, again a special favour afforded non-EU students. Universities are also being granted the task of keeping tabs on “behaviours that may be unrelated to academic endeavour”, data will is then “used by UKVI in determining the supposed legitimacy of non-EU students.”

The letter finally urges Universities UK, the vice-chancellors’ body, to “oppose the discriminatory treatment of non-EU students in all forms.” Students should be “treated equally regarding their attendance of classes”, and their “right to privacy […] respected, irrespective of their nationality.” Which way the UUK bends is anybody’s punt, given that body’s tendency to bat against academics as often as it does for them.

Some of the comments and observations in the letter are well meant, but it is also worth pointing out that foreign students have become the global milch cow for universities, a seemingly endless supply of finance that does not necessarily encourage innovation let alone quality. Services often do not match the heft that comes with the price. Students’ wallets are there to be stretched. This effect has been compounded by the scorched earth policy being waged against universities by the coalition government.

For David Cameron and company, students are also a tricky bunch, seeking to violate the sovereignty of the Queen’s realm via an ingenious market of evasions. Last month, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, was confronted by a terrifying spectacle: the prospects of fraud in the student visa system which allowed “200 foreigners2 into Britain each year.” Much of this came on the heels of a BBC Panorama investigation which found flaws in the system. Nothing new came out of it. The program simply demonstrated that students are big business, and those with the cash will bypass formal rules. For May, what was “shown is that people effectively go into a situation where [the entry requirements] are being faked for them and that is a matter of grave concern.”

Added to this is the Cameron government’s insistence on broadening the surveillance tentacles on all immigrants. This again involves conscripting others to do its dirty work. Making private landlords undertake immigration checks is another example of this, and is the red rag to the bull of discrimination. The Common home affairs committee3 condemned the moves last November, noting that landlords would have to consider anywhere in the order of 400 “legitimate European identity documents alone” to make a decision. “There is a possibility that landlords will discriminate against all immigrants regardless of their status rather than take the risk of housing a person without right to remain.”

Such policies are the hallmark of meanness tinged by a lack of imagination. They even consume their architects. Mark Harper4, the immigration minister who ever so brightly suggested that “go home” advertisements be placed on vans to compel illegal immigrants to flee Britain, had to resign himself. The reason: his private cleaner of seven years did not have permission to work in the UK.

For a government looking for ways to earn more cash in a shrinking economy, targeting students and immigrants seems more than a touch daft. As the Home Secretary had to concede over Harper’s “go home” advertisements, they simply proved “too much of a blunt instrument.”

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com 

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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