International students feel they are being picked on

'International students contribute £14bn a year to the economy, according to Migration Matters. But last year their numbers plummeted from 239,000 to 197,000 – this alone would cost the economy £725m.' Photograph: Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images: The Guardian

Zoha Tapia is an international student and freelance reporter for the Times of India.  In an article written for The Guardian (September 30, 2013), she says that a strict monitoring system may stop overseas students coming to the UK.  She says that talking tough on immigration may please the Tories but it could damage Britain.

'International students contribute £14bn a year to the economy, according to Migration Matters. But last year their numbers plummeted from 239,000 to 197,000 – this alone would cost the economy £725m.'

To institutions, international students are worth thousands of pounds in tuition fees every year. But although international students spend up to £12,000 a year for their education in the UK, many feel that they are being treated as second-class citizens.

One of the reasons for international students' dissatisfaction is the stringent attendance monitoring system imposed by many universities.  This requires students to sign in, up to three times a week, at their university office. It has been introduced to clamp down on 'bogus' overseas students, amid the general anti-immigration hysteria, but has left many students – most of whom are here for genuine study – feeling as if they are visa cheats.

London-based student Mostafa Rajaai is an Iranian student studying photography in London. He says that this monitoring system is a "racist and degrading" way to prove he is attending classes.  "If I knew that was the situation, I wouldn't have come in the first place, and would tell others back home to think twice," he says.

One the one hand, it is understandable that universities would not want to lose their licence to recruit international students.  But on the other hand, these intrusive attendance procedures are humiliating for students whose intentions are being questioned.

The truth is however that a number of international students have been abusing the system and have used registering at 'bogus' colleges as a way to come to the UK to work rather than study.  It is these students that have created the current situation for the rest of the well-intentioned international student body.

The UK Border Agency, under the changes to the visa system, has required universities to report any students "who have missed 10 consecutive expected contacts".  Universities have interpretedt this directive in different ways.  According to Tapia, some universities, such as the University of East London, simply de-register students who have missed three compulsory elements of a module.  Others, such as the University of the Arts London and the University of Glamorgan, expect students to sign in once a week.  While still others, such as Coventry University, expect students to sign in three times a week.

As an overseas student, Tapia says that she has had to register at her university office during its working hours – even if it clashes with her lectures.  If she doesn't she risks receiving a warning letter stating that she may face deportation.

She explains that although signing in is not a big deal in itself, the problem is that the office (where she is supposed to go and sign in) isn't always open at the hours she is at university. Tapia admits that she does not have an issue with monitoring attendance during class, but sign-ins, she says, "are not only inconvenient but also make us feel under permanent suspicion, unwanted even. And why should we be the only ones targeted: don't British and EU students also have the duty to attend classes? It feels like discrimination."

International students pay thousands of pounds for their education in the UK and do not appreciate being treated as if they are on probation. Furthermore, the constant tussle between universities, the Home Office and the UKBA, where international students get blamed, is ultimately damaging Britain's image around the world as a welcoming educational destination.

Tapia says that this policy is dividing students into locals and outsiders. American student Nina Reschovsky says: "It seems unfair. I not only have to pay much higher tuition rates, but I also have to check in every week. It feels demeaning and discriminatory."

This is not just a PR problem for Britain. International students contribute a massive amount to the economy – £14bn a year, according to Migration Matters. But last year their numbers plummeted from 239,000 to 197,000 – this alone would cost the economy £725m.

"And this drop is likely to continue while those from overseas feel like second-class students, living in fear of being deported. Meanwhile prospective ones will wonder whether, in the current climate of suspicion and mistrust, it is worth coming to the UK at all."

"The home secretary, Theresa May, may feel that talking tough on immigration, and imposing humiliating clampdowns, will give her party a boost in the polls. But she should realise that this gain will only be short term – because if this trend continues, ultimately, Britain will be the loser."

[ Photo: Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images/The Guardian]

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