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UKBA u-turn on international student checks is not enough

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Laura Liszewski

Laura Liszewski, an American studying journalism at University of London, Goldsmiths College, gives her verdict on the United Kingdom Border Agency’s decision to remove stricter monitoring rules for international students at UK universities. 

The Government announced last week that international students are no longer subject to stricter attendance checks than fellow classmates from the United Kingdom and the EU.

The policy reversal came in a UK Border Agency letter sent to higher education institutions across the country.

It said: “I can confirm that we no longer require you to report to us when a student has missed 10 expected contacts…We only require you to notify us at the point that you withdraw sponsorship.”

Before the policy revision, universities were required to report an overseas student to the government after 10 absences, leading to possible dismissal and deportation.

The Guardian reported in December of universities employing demeaning tactics to comply with ambiguous rules on monitoring attendance: Coventry University made overseas students report to check in points three times per week around campus, while Newcastle University had thought of using biometric fingerprint data for students to prove they were actively studying. Those plans were dropped, however, before they could be put into effect.

I suppose the government U turn should be applauded, yet I am left feeling wholly underwhelmed.

After being welcomed to the UK for a year of study at Lancaster University in 2004, I had always dreamed of coming back. England suited me: the standard of education in the UK is incredibly high, the institutions are globally respected, and the structure of study allows for more depth and independent learning than American universities.

However, the hoops I have had to jump through this time around to undertake an MA at Goldsmiths College have not left me feeling so welcome as before.

The visa application in 2004 was relatively straightforward. It has since doubled in length and ambiguity. Get any one part of it wrong, and the entire application will be sent back, starting the lengthy process all over again.

After registering my biometric fingerprints Big Brother style, I waited patiently during the estimated processing time, and then waited some more. UKBA will not take any visa-related enquiries, so the only point of contact available is via Worldbridge, the outsourced “partner” company that deals with all visa payments.

A call to the customer service at Worldbridge will cost you a mere $3 plus tax per minute. Considering that Worldbridge have absolutely zero authority on immigration policy, however, and with less than a week to go and no visa, I paid an additional $150 to have my application “expedited.” Lo and behold, it arrived the next day – a bargain at just under $600 (about £400) total.

As I approached passport control at Heathrow, I was bombarded with ad-hoc signs saying that all international students must fill out a special registration form, which included a question on whether or not I had experienced coughing fits in the past few months. I chased down three different immigration officers who seemed to know nothing about the form, what it was for or where to find it.

Finally getting  hold of the form, I frantically filled it out as the queue moved forward, carefully ticking the “no” box to the question on whether or not I had tuberculosis. Handing it to the passport control officer, she looked at it with a roll of her eyes and said sarcastically: “Americans don’t have to fill out these forms.”

Once they arrived in the UK, UKBA gave students just one week to be registered at understaffed police stations. Many queued throughout cold nights in order to comply. Quite unfairly, I was once again exempt from this inconvenience as an American.

Mark Harper, immigration minister said a few weeks ago: “The increase in non-EEA student applications is further proof that the UK remains open to the brightest and the best and international students…this shows that despite stories to the contrary, students continue to want to come to the UK to study at our world class universities.”

Watching my loans pile up for the “privilege” to receive less than half the respect and decency afforded to my classmates at these “world-class institutions”, I question what Harper says will remain true.

The announcement to drop the ridiculous 10-absence rule is a small victory, but it does not erase the bad taste being treated like a criminal – and one who is paying a dear price to be here – has left in the mouths of international students throughout the UK.

EastLondonLines published a series of opinion pieces by overseas students who have gone through the UK visa process.

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