UK Visa System – Open Society?

We do not live in George Orwell’s 1984 world, but additional layers of British society are progressively coming under the scrutiny of the State. After schools and playgroups, Higher Education has become the latest subject of attention. Traditionally a place of critical thinking and innovative research, it has often acted as a counterweight to power. In the name of counter-terrorism and the fight against bogus

immigrants, foreign nationals applying to study or work in academia in the UK face new visa rules incorporating a series of monitoring procedures. This not only represents a worrying obsession with control, but also the potential transformation of one of the last recesses of free thought.

Under the new Point Based Immigration System, non-European individuals wishing to enter academia as students or staff must provide guarantees of the authenticity of their application, their financial autonomy, as well as their ‘good character’. Simultaneously calling to mind phantoms from the McCarthy era and Big Brother’s new speech, what this means remains obscure. What is the UKBA (theUK’s Border Agency) hoping to achieve by including a question on applicants ‘good character’ that no one in their right mind would answer by a negative? God knows, but it indicates the UK’s authorities are cultivating a growing culture of fear and suspicion, particularly towards foreign nationals. End 2007 all overseas applicants at postgraduate level were subjected to vetting by the Foreign Office for research topics in the areas of medicine, biology, engineering, chemistry, physics, or computer science as part of the Academic Technology Approval System. Backgrounds and family relations are investigated to prevent access by ‘dangerous individuals’ to technology and knowledge usable for the development of WMDs. Now, with the reinforced checks on visa applicants, the collection of biometric data and requirement for overseas nationals to possess an ID card in the UK, the scrutiny is getting heavier. Unsurprisingly, people from the developing world, and especially countries considered as ’rogue’ or presenting security risks are consequently suffering the hardest. Applicants coming from countries considered as ‘risk nations’ (in other words generally the ‘Axis of evil’) are experiencing particular difficulties on applying, but also once in the UK when passing through border control or registering with the police on arrival.

These obstacles behind them, they come under the watchful eye of their Higher Education institution, as the UKBA requires their staff to monitor attendance of visa nationals, whether students or employees. Absences of more than 10 consecutive days, failure to attend more than 10 expected interactions (seminars, lectures, appointments with tutors) or one’s registration, but also suspicious behaviour must be reported, possibly leading to deportation. Anyone who has ever uprooted their entire life to a new country, sometimes even a new linguistic environment, will understand how coping with it all might be overwhelming and at times logistically difficult. Keeping up appointments thus might be difficult for all sorts of reasons ranging from practical to emotional. With the stale smell of paranoia floating in the air, thanks to aninstrumentalisation of xenophobic rhetoric and anti-Islam sentiment spread by British media and politicians alike, one can wonder whether the Higher Education employees who will choose to enforce monitoring might not therefore be inclined to pay particular attention to those this new scheme does not dare point at explicitly.

The United Kingdom might not be closing its borders to the outside, but with the PBIS it is sending a clear message to non-Europeans that an era of distrust has begun. Rather than encouraging exchange, circulation and cross-fertilisation, the British government has initiated a process which is likely to discriminate against individuals
from certain countries, and radically change the nature of relations in academia from trust to suspicion. Students must be encouraged to express their opinions, just as researchers must have the freedom to explore without fear of limitations due to preconceived ideas. Academia must remain a place of rational and free debate, one where opposing views can meet and argue. That politics has been reduced to a
management exercise makes this even more crucial if Britain is to continue living in an open society.

Article provided by Valérie Hartwich, a French-German writer, translator and interpreter based in London, who is conducting research for the Manifesto Club’s campaign against the Point-Based Immigration System.

The Manifesto Club campaigns against the hyperregulation of everyday life.

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