Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Academics to become immigration snoops?

There's an excellent letter in the Guardian today on the latest government wheeze to get lecturers to monitor their students. Signed by 37 academics it reads;

As academics involved in research on the uses and abuses of state power, it is becoming increasingly apparent that members of staff in universities and colleges are being drawn into a role of policing immigration (Universities weigh up new fraud unit to thwart bogus applications, 11 April). For example, academic and administrative staff are being asked to monitor the attendance of students at lectures and classes (whether compulsory or not), and we are being asked to check the ID of students and colleagues, while external examiners and visiting lecturers are also now being asked to provide passport details.

We strongly oppose the imposition of such changes in the way that academic institutions are run. We believe these practices are discriminatory and distort academic freedoms. The implementation of UK immigration policies is not part of our contractual duties and we will play no part in practices which discriminate against students and staff in this way. We support our administrative colleagues in their refusal to engage in such practices. Thus we pledge to refuse to co-operate with university requests for us to provide details on our students or participate in investigations of those students.

As a first, and highly practical, step, we pledge not to supply any personal details - such as passport or driving licence details - in our role as external examiners, and urge all of our colleagues across higher and further education to join this boycott. We will also forward motions to our respective union branches in support of this position. A boycott would undermine immediately the system of external examining at all levels, which operates almost exclusively on the basis of goodwill, and thus strike a significant blow against both the pernicious drift of government policy, and university managements' acquiescence to this.
The "terrorist threat" is the stated reason for this crack down although it seems to me that it would do precious little to prevent attacks but rather simply serve to make the education system an arm of the immigration service. That's not what it's for and, unless we actually want a police state where everyone is snooping on everyone else, I don't think it's a direction we should be taking.

If we got an official to punch every student from Pakistan in this country we might well hit some terrorist sympathisers, but to what purpose? We could guarantee that we would increase the pool of discontent that such people feed upon, but little else.

Likewise, if we clamp down on student visas it is quite possible that we may temporarily prevent a terrorist entering the country and force them to get in in a different way, an inconvenience for sure - at the cost of unjustly denying a whole load of completely innocent people entry, making our education system and our country all the poorer (both culturally and financially).

Part of the problem is the rank dishonesty of a government that uses every news story (in this case one they generated themselves) to further their already existing agenda no matter what relation that story might actually have to their goals. When they get away with it it is because we let them, not because it's a clever strategy because it isn't. It's a blunt tool, but a powerful one.

Almost always the government finds itself using fear as a lever to crack down on someone or other. Today it's students from Pakistan, tomorrow it will be travellers or trade unionists or political protesters. Or maybe that's today as well.

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