Reflecting on migrant students and staff, UCU strikes, and UK student activism

black and white image of chicken wire fence. In the middle of the fence is a hole with a bird sat in it

By Unis Resist Border Controls (URBC)

During the last days of the initial 10 day strike during February-March 2022 at the UCU picket at the University of Manchester, a URBC member observed a few white left-wing individuals engaged in a partial hard picket outside of University Place.

While URBC has no problem with the tactic of hard picketing, it seemed odd that it was mostly racialised migrant students who were being told by largely white left-wing individuals not to attend class, completely oblivious of the dangerous and precarious bind that migrant students are in. Migrant students are forced to cross the pickets because UK universities engage in attendance monitoring on behalf of the Home Office. This is an aspect of the hostile environment policy in UK higher education. Migrant students who chose not to attend class would have risked far more than what is reasonable to demand, including criminalisation and the risk of withdrawal from their degree course that would have led to a visa curtailment and eventual removal from the UK, only to return to their home country with no degree and high debt to boot. Their British counterparts often forget or are unaware of these struggles. 

Migrant students are forced to cross the pickets because UK universities engage in attendance monitoring on behalf of the Home Office.

Our URBC comrade approached these left-wing student supporters and told them to instead leaflet using our flyers, indicating what migrant students can do to support the strike, which includes sending a template letter that they can personalise to their Vice-Chancellor. However, instead of taking this recommendation, our member was ignored. It was only after our comrade pointed out that conducting a hard picket in one entryway of many around University Place was utterly useless and that it was “bad optics” for predominately white men to be turning away mostly racialised migrant students who are forced to attend class because of the mandate of the Hostile Environment policy. This alone made them relent in their initial approach. A few weeks later into the second stage of strikes, URBC saw that student supporters on the Manchester pickets were distributing leaflets, stating yet again, for students to show solidarity with the UCU strike by not “attend[ing] uni” and to “Stay in bed”. Clearly, the leaflet’s scope was limited to British students. This is just another example of many that illustrate the lack of consideration for the particular situation of migrant students.

What happened on the recent University of Manchester UCU picket is part of four years of URBC members seeing and experiencing unhelpful behaviour on many pickets up and down the country that shows us how woefully behind UCU members and student-supporters are in engaging with migrant students and staff to support strike actions. Every time URBC hears that it is a waste of time to engage with migrant students to show solidarity with UCU strikes we bring up a powerful letter written by a Chinese undergraduate student at the University of Liverpool. After reading our Chinese strike materials during the 2018 UCU strike, this student wrote to Vice-Chancellor Professor Janet Beer, stating:

“I support my lecturers in the industrial action and want you to do all you can to ensure a fair pension for university staff. […]I believe this strike is just the latest episode in a series of problems caused by the marketisation of higher education in the United Kingdom, such as the huge raises in student fees and the casualisation of the workforce. These issues did not originate with you, you have to play your part and fix it. If you are unwilling and unable to confront these issues, you should step down as Vice-Chancellor of University of Liverppol [sic] and president of UUK (University UK).” 

Clearly engaging with migrant students before and during a strike works and is important and it works to create a larger network of solidarity. URBC has provided for four years accessible strike information that we have heavily advertised on social media, but we fail to see student activists and individual UCU branches use them. Why are both UCU members and British student activists slow to connect precarity faced by academic staff, both migrant and British and specifically how marketised higher education is affecting them in addition to how the hostile environment policy is jointly affecting migrant student and migrant university staff?

The lack of joining up the exploitation of marketised higher education and the hostile environment policy within UK higher education among both UCU members and student activists has to do with the fact that most do not understand how hostile environment policy functions in UK higher education. In our first study to understand how the hostile environment policy is practised in UK higher education, URBC found in 2018-2019 that over half of those who responded to our study did not know which university department corresponded with the Home Office in the attendance monitoring of both migrant staff and students.

At the recent NUS national conference, URBC was informed by migrant student delegates that another delegate maintained that the high tuition fees that international students pay, twice as much as their British counterparts, must stay. Meanwhile, other delegates informed us that a motion supporting migrant students being able to freelance was met with resistance at the NUS national conference because some delegates felt that this would encourage migrant students to “work when they should be here only to study”. Needless to say, British students and their university staff counterparts often forget that migrant students are allowed to work 20 hours per week during term time, and do work, in order to gain necessary experience. NUS delegates peddling xeno-racist discourse of “migrants taking jobs”, often used by the British far-right and also UK’s main political parties- Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour, is akin to arguing for more draconian borders, which created the ten year, hostile environment policy. It was disappointing that there are NUS delegates who argued against this motion from being passed by utilising the same far-right xeno-racist rhetoric against migrant students demanding better work conditions. 

More frustrating is during the last four UCU strikes, it seems that UCU branches only reach out to URBC for workshops during strike action, but fail to link up with us during the rest of the academic year. Even those UCU branches and student activist groups that we have given workshops to on the hostile environment policy in UK higher education rarely implement actions that we’ve set out for them to fulfil. This is yet another way that migrant issues become tokenised and not seen as part and parcel of an anti-racist, anti-imperialist and labour rights action that is sorely lacking within both UCU structures and student-led activism.

On the other hand, sometimes URBC has witnessed well-meaning student activists and university staff behave, at times, in an extra cautious manner, using concerns over immigration to prevent migrant students & staff from mobilising against the ways both marketised higher education and the hostile environment policy are affecting them. This kind of patronising behaviour isn’t just rooted in student activists and even UCU members, but also within UK border abolition and migrant rights activism. Despite xeno-racist immigration policy, migrant staff and students have agency and can institute change and create movements within their respective universities. Recently, refugee and asylum seeker students at the School of Oriental and African, University of London (SOAS), refugee and asylum seeker students on SOAS’s Sanctuary Scholarship programme have helped construct this letter outlining the inadequate maintenance support (£6,000 per year) in the world’s most expensive city, making it difficult to survive and have enough to pay rent, much less survive on.

Moreover, the letter outlines the inadequate accommodation support given by SOAS, in addition to difficulties accessing the NHS and mental health support, particularly for asylum seekers and refugees dealing with the effects of trauma. Finally, the letter demands that SOAS not reduced the scholarship programme from seven places to only two. The campaign has been successful in stopping SOAS from reducing the scholarship programme, yet, there are still many outstanding and urgent demands that need to be met to ensure that asylum seekers and refugee students are safe.  While the letter has received over 100 endorsements, it stands in stark contrast to the 500+ signatures from lecturers and students who signed a letter of solidarity with the  SOAS student occupation who were brutalised by management on 3 March 2022. The SOAS occupation even got support from UCUURBC fails to understand why when refugee and asylum seeker students who organise their own liberation are not properly supported by UCU and NUS  much less the very same university staff and largely British student body, even why they proclaim #OneOfUSAllOfUs? 

On a positive note, we welcome the recent discussions initiated by URBC that we’ve had with both UCU Anti-Casualisation Committee and the UCU Postgrads team. We hope to cultivate such discussions and potential actions into tangible and meaningful support for UCU branches in dealing with the variety of migrant casework and issues that come their way. Certainly though, we hope more UCU branches reach out to us and work with us in understanding how hostile environment policy functions in their workplace and study environments. This is particularly important as the draconian Nationality and Borders Bill recently received Royal Assent and became an Act of Parliament on 28 April 2022. Additionally, migrants who enter unlawfully will now be sent to a UK immigration detention centre in Rwanda.

We need university staff and students to be aware that as Fortress UK expands, in addition to the ten years of the hostile environment policy, we will experience more criminalisation, detention and deportation of migrants in our communities. Your university degrees and grant award won’t save you from this violence. Within the university, migrant staff and students in the UK face disproportionate surveillance, criminalisation, serious impediments to supporting important industrial action, a total lack of access to government and often limited access to institutional support, barriers to accessing healthcare and disability support, and a callous and xenophobic attitude from within mainstream unions that are supposed to support them, even while they maintain, #RefugeesWelcome. How can UCU and NUS seem so complacent when it is so widely acknowledged that this, in the words of Tony Benn, “shows you how they would treat the rest of us if they thought they could”?

 It must be understood that whatever exploitation, violence and precarity are happening to migrants in the UK, whether they are a part of a university community or not, trickles down to the exploitation, violence and precarity that is also happening to British citizens. We need to draw on these shared experiences and forge a movement within UCU and other union structures that works with grassroots activists to stop these violations from happening in the first place. 

Unis Resist Border Controls (URBC) is a six year migrant-led national campaign of university staff and students seeking to end the hostile environment policy and border controls within UK higher education. Learn more about URBC and get involved here:

Cover image by Brandon Green on UnSplash