Cash Cows and Job Poachers? Non-EU Students and Austerity Politics

By Kirsten Forkert, 11 October 2012
Image: London Met students' protest outside Downing Street, 30 August 2012

The recent fiasco over the London Metropolitan University’s recruitment of non-EU students has exposed their widespread mistreatment as both cash cows and job poachers. This culture of exploitation, writes Kirsten Forkert, is happening amidst growing opposition to immigration linked to austerity


On 26 August, an article appeared in The Sunday Times reporting that London Metropolitan University (LMU) had lost its licence to recruit international students from outside the European Economic Area (EAA).1 The student visas of over 2,600 students were now invalid. They would have to find another course to enrol on within 60 days or be forced to leave the country. This was difficult at a time of year when classes were about to start and many courses had already closed. The specialist nature of LMU’s provision would also make it difficult to find equivalent degrees elsewhere. It was unclear whether or not those who had already paid fees would have them refunded. The situation for postgraduate students was yet more complicated; it was unclear whether they would have to restart their courses from the beginning. LMU staff were also not supposed to teach students affected by the ban.2


Sensing an opportunity (at a time when student enrolment was down as a result of the introduction of £9,000 tuition fees), London universities offered places for stranded LMU students, and in some cases with cash rewards; the private Regents’ College offered £800,000 in scholarships to cover the lost tuition fees.3 A ‘clearing system’ and a £2m ‘hardship fund’ were set up by the government to help relocate the students.4 LMU’s management drew up a list of institutions students could potentially transfer to. The list included three commercial operators,5 one of which – the for-profit Greenwich School of Management – was later taken off the list due to quality assurance issues.6


The UK Border Agency (UKBA) claimed that there were systemic failings and repeated warnings about LMU’s attendance monitoring system. Why LMU ended up in this situation can partly be seen as an outcome of the administrative chaos caused by its repeated attempts to cut and outsource student services, under the euphemism of ‘shared services’. It can also be understood as a result of the contradictions between imperatives to expand for-profit HE provision and shut down ‘bogus colleges’. One under-reported story was the university’s partnership with the London School of Business and Finance (LSBF), which apparently triggered the UKBA compliance audit. According to BBC4’s The Report, a previous audit of the partnership had received the UKBA’s blessing, but pressure to reduce net migration (the total number of people entering the UK) made private colleges an easy target. LSBF ironically ended up on the clearing list, indicating the university’s intentions to continue its relationship with the college.


However, this was not a simple matter of failure to follow procedures. The UKBA rules for Tier 4 student visas are notoriously complex, bureaucratic and often not clearly communicated, changing frequently (often in response to legal challenges). Requirements for attendance monitoring effectively outsource the policing of immigration rules to university staff, with implications for the relationship of trust between staff and students. The rules are discriminatory, requiring students from certain countries (disproportionately those within the Middle East, Asia and Africa) to register with the police and show larger bank balances in order to obtain visas.7 As Des Freedman, UCU branch secretary at Goldsmiths College, has pointed out, the timing of the announcement of LMU’s licence revocation was rather suspicious as it coincided with the government’s admission that it was far off meeting its target for capping net migration at the ‘tens of thousands’.8 This led some to accuse the government of a ‘media stunt’ to show it was being ‘tough on immigration’.9 This would be generally consistent with the government’s rhetoric, which routinely conflates cracking down on abuse (which in fact involves a tiny minority) with reducing net migration.


On 11 September the university launched a legal challenge to UKBA’s revocation of its licence; the outcome of the court decision was that students were granted a temporary reprieve for the academic year, meaning that third year and MA students will be able to complete their degrees at LMU. There will be a judicial review of the licence revocation. However, until the final decision, LMU will still be without a licence, unable to recruit more overseas students, with consequences for its finances. Students with more than one year left of their studies will still be left stranded at the end of the academic year.


Regular protests were held outside LMU and the Home Office, which received widespread media coverage. Dean Idumwonyi, one of the students interviewed in a video posted on The Guardian website mentioned that his father had a heart attack upon hearing the news about LMU.10 The student could not return to Nigeria to visit his father for fear he would not be allowed back into the UK. This sympathetic coverage, which depicted the students as innocent victims, was a welcome departure from the continual stereotyping of overseas students as ‘bogus’. This, and the NUS independent legal intervention in the court case, may have had an impact on the outcome.


A few weeks later, the UK was hit by another scandal involving international students. As already mentioned, students from certain countries were required to register with the police within seven days of arrival. However, there is only one office in London (which receives many international students) and with limited opening hours. This meant that students were forced to queue outside the police station for hours, in some cases even camping overnight. A video was sent to the press by NUS International Students’ Officer Daniel Corradi Stevens of students queuing around the block at night, in the pouring rain.11 It also received international media coverage, including a headline in The Hindu about international students being treated like cattle; University of London Union VP Daniel Lemberger Cooper wrote to the Mayor to complain.12 This led to a relaxation of the requirement to register with the police within seven days.13



How did it come to this? The LMU and police registration fiascos could be seen as resulting from LMU and international students coming bottom of the public sympathy hierarchy, and also as a result of political impasses which have been exacerbated by austerity measures (from which the current campaigning hopefully represents the beginning of a shift). Students from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) pay significantly higher fees than European students and are also outside the recruitment quota. They are thus exploited as ‘cash cows’ to finance higher education, as state funding is withdrawn. International students are stereotyped as spoiled, sheltered rich kids with poor English and academic skills, incapable of critical or independent thought, who are accepted purely because of their capacity (or rather, their parents’ capacity) to pay. They are also frequently depicted as ‘bogus’, employed in low-paid and exploitative service work rather than genuinely studying. This means that they are seen as undeserving of public sympathy, making it acceptable to subject them to increasingly harsh immigration controls. International students are also under represented within official student politics, meaning that their needs can be treated as peripheral.


It is not only international students, but also post-92 universities that are seen as suspect, revealing persistent elitist prejudices about higher education within mainstream public discourse. Post-92 universities are often characterised by press commentators as mediocre institutions, offering unchallenging course provision (media and cultural studies, along with other newer academic subjects, are frequently singled out) to students who do not deserve to be at university, and who would be better off in apprenticeships. LMU is an institution with a widening participation agenda and a diverse student population (it famously has more Black/Ethnic minority students than the entire Russell Group). It has also experienced severe cuts, is facing the loss of 70% of undergraduate course provision, and a history of mismanagement scandals.14 For some, LMU exemplifies everything that is wrong with post-92 institutions and it would be better if it closed, or taken over by for-profit companies. According to this line of thinking, the stranded international students should have known better than to study at LMU rather than Oxford or Cambridge and thus deserve their fate.


If both international students and post-92 institutions such as LMU are being scapegoated, there have also been certain political impasses which have allowed this to become socially acceptable. It is a truism that tough economic times lead to an increase in racism and scapegoating, but these would not become so prevalent if certain ideas had not already been accepted as common sense. The first is that immigration causes unemployment. Despite the evidence to the contrary (as demonstrated by a report by the NIESR) this argument has been used so often by politicians and the mainstream press that it is seen as an indisputable truth.15 Highly casualised and exploitative sectors such as the building trade or the food industry are generalised to the entire economy, so it is assumed that immigrants drive down wages in general (despite the fact that basing hiring practices or wages on nationality is both discriminatory and illegal). The second is the right’s appropriation of the ecological argument around population control, such as MigrationWatch’s ‘No to 70 million’ motion aimed at reducing immigration so as to reduce the UK’s population.16 This Malthusian panic-mongering conveniently ignores the fact that some people consume more than others (for example, what is the carbon footprint of owning a second home?). The third is the increasingly automatic association of the term ‘working class’ with the term ‘white’, invoking a community whose economic stability and social cohesion are threatened by immigration. Class becomes understood primarily as a cultural identity category rather than an economic condition, making it difficult to imagine simultaneously being working class, non-white and/or non-British. The media coverage of events such as the 2009 Lindsay oil refinery strike, for example, associated working-class militancy with nationalism and protectionism. The logical outcome of these arguments is that shutting the borders becomes a perverse form of social justice.


As austerity measures create pressure on public services, any remaining principle of universality is undermined and they become seen as scarce resources to be rationed out to the deserving. Demographic groups are pitted against each other (young vs. old, disabled vs. able-bodied, the unemployed vs. 'hard working families'). For the reasons mentioned above and also due to a broader shift towards social conservatism within mainstream politics (exemplified by the Big Society, Blue Labour and recent attempts to ‘reclaim nationalism’), non-UK citizens become seen as particularly undeserving. This line of thinking, of course, unquestioningly accepts the necessity of austerity and the inevitability of public service cuts. A similar logic applies to jobs. If foreigners (including overseas students) are already seen to be poaching jobs from UK graduates then, in the context of the recession, the very fact of their working in the UK – even legally – is regarded as immoral (justifying measures such as the scrapping of the Post-Study Work visa). The causes of graduate unemployment (particularly austerity measures) are not questioned. Nor is this dynamic of rationing and shrinking social solidarity limited to the UK. In Greece (which is experiencing severe cuts to health care) the far-right political party Golden Dawn threatened to throw patients with foreign passports out of hospitals to make room for Greek patients.17 Such developments show how dangerous austerity measures can be for foreign citizens.


Image: Striking Lindsey Oil Refinery workers, June 2009


This sort of thinking has not been confronted robustly enough. Politicians, hearing anxieties about immigration on the doorstep, do not challenge their constituents and instead simply repeat their views (exemplified by Ed Miliband’s summer 2012 speech on the topic). Some political strategists, such as David Goodhart (director of the DEMOS think tank) have even called for centre-left political parties to openly advocate anti-immigration policies as a strategy for electoral success.18 This is why such views must be challenged as loudly and often as possible. There also need to be closer and, crucially, more imaginative links between campaigns against education and public service cuts, anti-racist campaigns, campaigns against immigration controls and campaigns against the marketisation of education. Such links have yet to be made, due to organisational limitations (particularly the sectional and single-issue nature of campaigns) and the political impasses mentioned earlier (which might lead many campaigners to abandon the issue of immigration controls as unpopular and unwinnable). However, the urgency of the LMU situation means they must be created now.


Another issue for those of us working in HE is that we might see our managements start to panic and impose increasingly draconian expectations for attendance monitoring out of fear that our institutions will become the ‘next LMU’. This will contribute to a growing climate of institutional racism: Scott Poynting and Ann Singleton recently described a scenario where a PhD student was penalised for breaching his visa conditions due to attending an international conference, and the increasing prevalence of passport checks (including for UK citizens) disproportionately targeting Black/Ethnic minorities and those with ‘foreign sounding names’. This also needs to be confronted robustly by the UCU and other education unions rather than being marginalised as a contentious ‘political issue’ which is external to workplace concerns (with the exception of the excellent work done by the LMU UCU and UNISON branches, and the Goldsmiths-based Students Not Suspects campaign, this has largely been the case in the past); the campaigns mentioned above also need to be engaged.19 We need to ask ourselves ‘is this the future we want for education?’. If not, such measures could soon come to be accepted as normal, as just a matter of ‘following the rules’. History has shown us the logical outcome of this line of thinking.


A petition opposing the revocation of LMU’s sponsor licence can be signed at


Kirsten Forkert <kforkert AT> is a former international student and was involved in the Students Not Suspects campaign at Goldsmiths. She currently teaches at the University of Nottingham



4 See,