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the future of international students – ii

I noticed that my blog is coming up on Google searches for ‘what do the cuts mean for international students’ and it reminded me that my rant about the proposed visa changes isn’t over. And alas, here we go.

So what do the cuts mean for international students? And what happens when funding cuts brought in at the same time as the visa changes? I think the short answer is this: rich international students will be fine, smart but poor international students will be screwed.

While international students are not directly hit by the proposed increase in fees, it is worth remembering that non-EU students already pay astronomical fees of up to £18,000 per annum (see Universities UK survey here). This is just fees: that is, before international students have clothed, fed, or housed themselves. The total estimated cost for an international student to spend a year in the UK can be up to around £28,000. Stick that figure into the currency converter for Indian rupee, Chinese yuan, South African rand or Egyptian pounds and gaze upon the resulting digits on your screen in silent horror. And that’s just for one year! A PhD takes four years, so do the maths and choke.

Unsurprisingly then, many international students rely on scholarships to get to the UK to study. With the cuts, scholarships are being cut. The existence of the British Chevening Scholarship is now in doubt (see this masterfully uninformative statement). This is on top of the demise of the Overseas Research Students Awards Scheme for English universities, which was the first casualty of the economic crisis. Until 2009, if you managed to get the extremely competitive ORSAS, then your fees were reduced from the astronomical overseas rate to the very reasonable home-rate: so that’s a reduction of more than £10,000 a year. The added bonus of this award was that other scholarships were more likely to fund students who already got the ORSAS, because then their financial burden was also reduced: they only paid for the home rate fees plus a maintence allowance. So without the ORSAS, not only are the fees prohibitive, the knock-on effect of it means that other scholarship opportunities are reduced. Scholarships (ironically, like the endangered Chevening), which might have funded more students now find each scholar more expensive. So, less scholarships all around.

Without scholarships, for Britain, the international students it can attract will no longer be the brightest and the best – but the wealthiest. Those that will be able to come and study in the UK will be the children of elites and oligarchs, not the children of middle class aspirational families who have slogged their way through the national system and came out on top. Worse, the impact on would-be-students from poorer countries will be disproportionately severe: they generally have fewer funding sources such as home-country-funded scholarships, and rely on overseas or international schemes. By contrast, students from countries like USA will have better access to their own home-country-funds (for example, the Marshall, and the various other small but lucrative scholarships set up to facilitate scholarly exchanges of all kinds between the Ivy Leagues and Oxbridge.)

So, we can look forward to welcoming the offsprings of Putin, Medeyev, Kim, Hu, Zardari, Zuma … oh wait, too late! But of course, with emerging economies doing better than the UK, a new breed of millionaires’ spawn will be able to study in the UK. But that’s probably a good thing. After all, with the funding cuts, we need their money to fund – well – almost everything in higher education. Then again, if the proposed visa changes come through, even these cash cows – I mean, students – might be barred from the immaculate green lawns of the UK university.

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Filed under: academic funding, daily politics, issues

the future of international students – part i

A raft of legislative changes is now proposed to counter the ‘problem’ of international students in the UK. One of the key proposed changes is the bolition of  Tier 1 Post-Study visas. UKBA is currently conducting consultations in respect of these proposed changes.

This visa currently enables the limited number of students who qualify to stay for two years after their study to work. For most international students, this is a time to gain some international work experience before returning to their home countries. The Post-Study visa cannot be extended beyond the two years, so after the time is up, the visa expires and unless you qualify for another category of visa (employer sponsored, highly skilled or some other family related visa), you have to leave. And most do. They take what they’ve learned back to their home countries, often benefiting the UK by setting up business and political relationships, trade deals and innovative collaborations. And during the two years that they work in the UK, they pay taxes, contribute to the British economy through their consumption and investments, enrich the British society culturally and do all this without ever having recourse to public funds.

It might come as a surprise to some that the UK is not the first choice destination for most international students – particularly those from China, India and Pakistan. (And let’s be honest here, the UKBA is not worried about students from Australia and Canada settling – those caught in the changes are ‘collateral damage’, and they tend to have more avenues for migration. At the heart of this is something dubiously close to racism.) The costs here are prohibitively expensive:  only the children of the wealthiest elites or the brightest who are funded by scholarships can afford to study here. The UK is also not exactly known for its sunny climes, hospitality or food. The quality of life in the UK – for most international students – is a shocking struggle. The combination of the expense, weather, food and distance from family and friends often make it a miserable and isolating experience. Compare UK to some of the alternatives: Australia (sun and beach; cheaper and better standards of of living; fabulous food); USA (better funding for graduate students; perceived to be more competitive internationally – particularly by the Chinese; and depending on location – sun, beach and good food). The quality of education in the UK – with the exception of several notable universities – is barely remarkable. These few exceptions, of course, are now threatened (as are the others) by the drastic cuts to higher education funding. Already, fee-income from international students (who pay exorbitant amounts compared to the local students – even after the proposed fee rise) contributes massively to the funding of higher education. So, the decrease in international student numbers also means a decrease in high education funding. The attactiveness of the UK as a higher education destination is already on a downward spiral, these proposed visa changes will only accelerate the decline.

Let’s put things into perspective. For some students, yes, the opportunity to work in the UK for a limited time might be a perk — it adds value to the degree (which they or their sponsors pay for in full), and enriches their experiences just that little more. But as the strict conditions and eligibility criteria of this category of visa means that it is not free path to settlement in the UK. Note that the UKBA table in section 6.1 of the Consultation Papers only gives data for a five year period between 2004-2009. This does not mean that thoses 2004 students who were still here in 2009 have settled in the UK permanently. In fact, if the students came to the UK on a student visa in 2004, then they would not qualify for settlement in the UK in 2009. Whether they settle in the UK or not is an entirely different question governened by the regulations around settlement. So the idea that a vast number of ‘fake’ students are intent on staying in the UK forever is misleading. By UKBA’s own admission more than 80% of students granted visas in 2004 had already left. Another 6% were continuing their studies in the UK (i.e. paying more fees, putting more money into the UK economy). So we’re talking about a possible 14% of students who have stayed on the UK under some form of visa. Of these, some might have started a PhD in 2004, which means that they may have only finished in 2009 and waiting to graduate. Others might have married a British/EU citizen, or some might have entered on the student visa but are actually dual nationals with a British passport already … there are many reasons – not only work – why they might still be in the UK. The figures offered by UKBA is ‘selective’ and encourages a skewed view.

To me, as someone who entered this country as an international student, the proposed changes are mean-spirited, xenophobic and short-sighted. More than discouraging ‘fake’ international students, they discourage even the more genuine of scholars because they send out a message of distrust and fear. Together with the coming cuts to high education, the changes say: ‘We will take your money and give you piece of paper (for after all, the quality of teaching is hardly guaranteed). Then we want you out of here.’  Does this sound like an attractive proposition to you?

I will have more to say about all this in the next few days (oh no, she’s not done!). But in the mean time, you can participate in the consultation process by doing the survey here. Notice the brevity of the consultation period – and over Christmas/New Year too – as if UKBA had secretly hoped that we would not notice. Beware of questions that let you answer ‘I don’t know’ — this gives a carte blanche to UKBA to do whatever they like. So please try to say something positive — or at least tell them what they should not do.

More on this matter soon….

Filed under: issues

Guantanamo: the horror continues. Do something.

Guantanamo. A story that has dropped out of media spotlight for some time now. But despite Obama’s promise, it is STILL OPEN. And there are still over 200 prisoners languishing in it. Many of whom have been ‘cleared for release’ but have nevertheless continued to be detained while the U S of A figures out what to do with them.

Andy Worthington, an independent journalist, painstakingly worked through 8000 pages of documents released by Pentagon in 2006 after a freedom of information lawsuit. These included the names and nationalities of all prisoners held, and 7000 pages of transcripts of tribunals convened to assess the status of these ‘enemy combatants’.  Piercing together a chronology and a narrative about these 774 people. The result is his book, THE GUANTANAMO FILES, published in 2007. With Polly Nash, Worthington then made a documentary – OUTSIDE THE LAW: STORIES FROM GUANTANAMO (2009) – including extensive interviews with former prisoners Moazzem Begg and Omar Deghayes, and with lawyers who have represented prisoners and have advocated tirelessly for their release.

The documentary succeeds in doing the one thing that no other media coverage has been able to do: it humanises the prisoners. Men accused of committing acts of terrorism turn out to be soft spoken, articulate, eloquent and gentle people. Often the victims of bounty hunters who were motivated by the vast sums offered by the Americans in the early days of the war, these men were made the exemplary homo sacer: exiles from law. No protection, no representation, no rule of law.

Yet despite their years of confinement and torture, Deghayes and Begg speak without rancour or bitterness: they recount their stories and the litany of outrageous abuse with an almost detached matter-of-factness. After so long in detention and so intimate an acquaintance with ‘enhanced techniques of interrogation’, a perverse yet nuanced appreciation of pain develops: talking to anyone, even an unsympathetic guard, is better than complete isolation; a tiny cage cell with a partial roof is better than a fully enclosed cell that offer no light or air.

Although Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian detainee who was finally released back to UK in 2009, did not appear in the film, his  story is told by Worthington, Clive Stafford Smith (director of Reprieve and Mohamed’s lawyer) and others.  Mohamed’s case has challenged the British government’s position that it had nothing to do with the torture inflicted by US agents and proxies. He (and other prisoners) maintain that British intelligence agents were aware that they were tortured, and even assisted the Americans in inflicting torture by providing information that could have only come from Britain. Only on Friday, the Court of Appeal recently reinstated a paragraph in a judgement (the government attempted to have the paragraph suppressed) by Lord Judge Neuberger which stated that some agents in MI5 had a ‘dubious record’ with torture and were also less than frank about what they knew. Unsurprisingly, Gordon Brown defended the intelligence community saying that ‘It is the nature of the work that they cannot defend themselves against many of the allegations made’. But of course, it is also ‘the nature of the work’ that the intelligence community is rarely called to account for their actions.

One of the most disturbing and oft-repeated arguments defending or justifying torture has been the argument of ‘balance of interests’. Some in the media have disseminated the view that there must be – as this Telegraph editorial puts it – a ‘balance [struck between] the human rights of terrorist suspects who claim they have been ill-treated with the rights of the whole community to be protected from those who would do us harm’. This is a view energetically propounded by the British government, including by Jack Straw – the current (ironically) Secretary of State for Justice and former Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary. In 2007, Straw delivered the Annual Stuart-Mackenzie lecture at the Centre for European Legal Studies in University of Cambridge. In his lecture, entitled HUMAN RIGHTS IN THE 21ST CENTURY, he argued that human rights must be balanced by security interests. Straw delivered his lecture with a politician’s polish. Shamefully, the usually vigorous crowd at Cambridge entirely failed to challenge Straw in any way. Only 4 questions were allowed, none of which addressed the one glaring problem in this calculus of efficacy that Straw was proposing: there are some rights that are non-derogable, including the right to be protected from torture. (There are only a few non-derogable rights under The International Protocol for Civil and Political Rights.) No calculus of interests should ever prevail over the protection of those basic fundamental rights. NOTHING can justify the use of torture.  There is no balance to be done. No calculation is needed.

As outrageous as much of the Dubya-led response to Nine-Eleven, it is perhaps important to focus on the future. How to hold those responsible to account? How to help those still in Guantanamo?

Shaker Aamer, a British resident (Saudi national), is STILL in Guantanamo. He has been cleared to be released, but has remained in detention. Moreover, although his wife and children are living in London (he has never met his youngest son, aged 7), the British government has not helped him to return. Instead, the American proposes to send Aamer back to Saudi Arabia, where his wife (a non-Saudi national) cannot go. As Gareth Peirce, a prominent lawyer points out, Aamer is another ‘inconvenient witness’ to the complicity of European and British governments in the horror of Guantanamo. If Aamer cannot return to the UK to tell his story, to testify at public inquiries or court hearings, then the government can evade taking responsibility for its own guilt.

The stories from Guantanamo rarely fill one with hope. But it is not all lost. Although I am often sceptical about ‘do-gooders’, there needs to be people who are willing to do good. So, here are a few ideas on how to do something:

  • JOIN the  campaign to secure the return of Aamer to UK. He cannot be allowed to be disappeared to Saudi Arabia. Learn more here, or here. And sign the petition here.

Filed under: films, issues, , , , , ,