University staff: use strike to protest against the hostile environment

In recent months, the hostile environment in UK universities has received increasing media attention. The cases of academics such as Dr Furaha Asani and students including Bamidele Chika Agbakuribe and Ahmed Sedeeq are just a handful of examples of the countless injustices that are now a regular part of life.

Meanwhile, members of the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) are striking over pensions and pay. 

The situation escalated in 2012 when the coalition government introduced highly trusted sponsor (HTS) status, which required universities to carry out more surveillance measures on non-EU students and staff. In the same year, London Metropolitan University lost its HTS status, forcing non-EU students to find another university to attend within 60 days or face deportation. To avoid sharing London Met’s fate, other universities began to impose heavy-handed measures.

For instance, the University of Sunderland and the University of Ulster adopted biometric fingerprinting for non-EU students. Coventry University rolled out check-ins three days per week at monitoring stations on campus, and University College London warned staff that failure to adequately monitor non-EU students’ class attendance could result in a £20,000 fine per student taken from a discretionary account.

Through outreach work, URBC began to understand that surveillance and border controls are widespread across universities, including through immigration “compliance” strategies designed to intimidate lecturers and administrative staff into self-induced surveillance.

URBC conducted a large-scale online survey last year which found that very few academic staff members know how the hostile environment policy works in their universities. Nearly half of the respondents said that they did not know which department corresponded with the Home Office. Since procedures for monitoring international staff and students vary widely across universities, this likely means that some are going far beyond what is required for compliance.

Responses to the survey also indicate that international black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students and staff are treated differently than other international students and staff. Types of discrimination vary but include increased institutional scrutiny, “suspicion and condescension” at the individual level, differential pay, unfair performance standards, and retaliatory and escalating hostility in response to complaints.

Despite this, white staff and students were far less likely to be aware of discrimination than their BAME counterparts. Likewise, EU staff members were also often unaware of how the hostile environment policy affects both them and also non-EU international staff and students.

UK universities are branding themselves as inclusive global leaders to gain income from international students, yet at the same time promoting the unfair, institutionally racist treatment of people from outside the EU. 

Migrant and non-migrant staff and students alike should use the strike to also highlight the way border controls and the hostile environment affect students and staff in places of work, study and in the UK community.