As an academic, I often write about the ethics of migration policy. But this week, the UK’s migration policy has presented me with an unexpectedly personal ethical dilemma.
I have discovered that I am expected to report all overseas students (those on what’s known as a Tier 4
visa) who have not attended their first two weeks of seminar classes. If I fail to make the report, these students may be put at risk of deportation. But in ticking the boxes, I’m effectively being co-opted into administrating a migration policy that I firmly believe to be unfair and ill-judged. I’ve expended huge amounts of energy over the past two years arguing that we need more, not less, global mobility if we’re to seriously address development: if I accept my role as a migration monitor in practice, what does this mean for my integrity as a researcher and teacher?
This isn’t a new debate
: but it’s the first time I’ve been personally asked to participate in confirming student attendance. At first glance, perhaps, the request seems innocuous and my angst unnecessary. After all, these are all students with a legal status: confirming that they’re fulfilling the conditions attached to their stay in the UK shouldn’t lead to ethical crisis. And in fact, my seminars have had 100% attendance: so there’s no need to worry that actually answering this specific query will lead directly to a struggling student being shipped back home.
But in fact, the implications are serious, particularly once you start considering basic principle of equality in education. I have no problem taking a weekly register recording students’ attendance in my seminars. I do so in every seminar. But I take this record for purposes of education, not visa control. If someone is persistently absent from my classes, I will be concerned and I will follow this up: but I do so as their teacher, not as border control. I am not interested in the visa status of my students: why should I even be allowed to know it? I am interested in their capacity to learn. I believe that every student is of equal status the moment they walk into the classroom. Yet this policy implies I should care more if a “foreign” student is absent than a British one: not for reasons of education, but for reasons of migration.
By demanding that I fill in my registers and hand them over – via a series of middle-men – to the UKBA, I’m also required to act as a proxy agent for a state policy I believe is wrong. The state out-sources its work and I become a policeman monitoring our bureaucratic borders. Bravo. Efficiency savings and the Big Society in one. Yet this entire system is premised on a climate of migration mistrust. Surely an alert to UKBA should only follow the (exceptionally rare) decision by a university that a student is failing their course and cannot possibly complete their course of study? Surely the measure of a student visa’s “legitimacy” is in the student passing the course, not sitting in a specified number of seminars for a small number of hours per week?
In the end, faced with the pleas from my over-worked departmental administrator, who had spent a full day trying to trace these “missing” students. I confirmed that my students on the list were all still “good” students. She was sympathetic to the obvious reluctance that I and many of my colleagues felt in being asked to hand over this information: but she was powerless to waive the request.
So mini-drama over, we’ll all continue much as normal, students and staff. But it reminded me just how simply the structures of state bureaucracy can make uneasy collaborators of us all.