UK row over teachers as spies - Varsities chafe at visa police role

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  • Published 1.10.11

London, Sept. 30: A dispute has broken out between the home office and British universities over whether teachers should be expected to report students appearing to abuse their visa conditions.

The home office says “we have nothing to apologise for” and that universities are responsible for the students given visas to the UK because of the sponsorship from education institutions where they are supposed to be studying.

A spokesperson for the UK border agency (UKBA), the home office department responsible for migration, said: “There has been widespread abuse of the visa system… and we have made radical changes… to make the system more rigorous…. We expect education providers who are sponsoring foreign students to make necessary checks.”

A report said 1,500 students were being reported every month to the authorities and the figure totalled 27,121 between March 2009 and August 2010. About 8,168 notifications were received between September 1, 2010, and March 23, 2011.

Universities don’t see themselves as “education providers” and argue that teachers are in a position of trust and should not be coerced by threats of having their licences revoked into becoming part of Britain’s security apparatus.

The report, Students Under Watch, on teachers allegedly spying on students has come from a civil rights group, the Manifesto Club. It says measures intended to catch “bogus students” have led to surveillance systems being imposed on all students and staff.

It recalls that the Labour government tightened visa controls in March 2009, requiring universities to register with the UK border agency, and imposing new duties on academics to monitor international students and report them for missed classes or “suspicious behaviour”.

The report says many universities — Bedfordshire, Derbyshire and Plymouth — are monitoring student attendance through swipe cards. Other universities — Birmingham, Brighton, Lancaster and Oxford -- require external examiners and lecturers to show their passports to prove they are not working illegally.

The current government has further tightened the system by capping the number of international staff and students, which has restricted universities’ ability to recruit academics of their choice.

The academic point of view was summed up by Adrian Sutton, head of the Condensed Theory Matter group, Imperial College London, who said that the immigration cap hampers staff recruitment.

“It is essential that the best researchers are employed from wherever they may be found. Universities have always disregarded where people come from, because to be the best you have to recruit the best people.”

The report shows how international academics have been subjected to deportation or humiliating procedures. Some are breaking off collaborations with UK varsities.

Josie Appleton, director of the Manifesto Club, made the point: “Academics are not border agents, and they should not be dragooned into spying on their students. The UKBA now has rights of entry to any university campus, which is a major threat to academic autonomy. We call for a more proportionate system, which recognises the historic autonomy of the university.”