London Met's Foreign Students Think the Government Is Racist
Last week, I wrote about the London Metropolitan University students faced with the imminent threat of deportation. Predictably, there are no signs that the government is gonna make a U-turn on their decision to revoke their visa rights, so yesterday a bunch of London Met students gathered outside the Home Office in London to protest about being given a 60-day deadline to find another university to start all over again at, or else be sent back to their home countries.
For context, the UK Border Agency has stripped the university of its right to teach overseas students. The reasons are numerous; there's talk of bad English, bad attendances and dodgy visas, as well as the general feeling that London Met is a soft touch for anyone who wants to get into Britain and then simply fade away into the infrastructure.
I went to London Met for a while, and while it had a lot wrong with it, I can't help but feel for the students whose futures now lie in tatters because they bought into the British higher education dream.
I went down to the last-ditch protest with the vague hope of persuading some of the stuffed shirts inside to listen to their cause. Was this all in vain, or could they tug at the bastard's heartstrings?
It was a sticky summer afternoon, the kind of weather that makes cops think they might have a Do The Right Thing situation on their hands. All the protest regs were there: the UNISON crew, the beleaguered warriors of the Socialist Worker, the people directly affected, and those who are just there for a bit of fist in the air solidarity in their lunch break.
The ubiquitous aluminium playpen had been set up for people to express their opinion in and the police stood around it like carnies working on the waltzer, jovially asking anyone outside it if they'd like to come in for a spin on the wheel of misfortune. Keep your hands and feet inside of the pen, or they might get batoned.
The people there were a mix of those who are themselves facing deportation, their classmates, the lecturers and one guy from the admin department who I steered clear of in case he started staggering towards me in tears clutching my student loan letters.
Leading the charge of the speakers was Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour MP for Islington North (where part of the London Met campus resides) and a man with impeccable left-wing credentials. He wears fisherman's hats, writes for the Morning Star and has even gone so far as to describe his beard as "a form of dissent against New Labour". Not sure how that works, but maybe Clare Short could have saved herself a lot of trouble with some testosterone supplements and some beard serum.
He spoke eloquently and controversially, declaring that, “Students are not immigrants, international students are welcome here. We should be saying that loud and clear. We’ll defend our students, we will fight for our students and when it comes to it, when management get in the way, we will fight them to fight to defend our students. We didn’t cause any of this mess; this is racist government policy from the bigoted wing of the Tory party. We will not let racists get rid of our students – full-stop."
After listening to those brave and/or deemed important enough to be invited to speak in public, we decided to speak to some of the students themselves to see what they thought about the measures.
VICE: So what made you come down today?
Marina, student from Russia: As one of the international students who is effected by the situation, I’m very concerned because I stand the risk of being deported from the country, which is very unfair.
What are you going to do? Have you applied to other courses yet?
I have, yes and hopefully I’ll be OK because I’ve already got a BA and an MA from the University of Westminster. This is my second post grad degree in human rights and social justice and I’ve got perfect attendance record.
So you’re not a terrorist. What do you think of the stories about bad attendance, dodgy visas and students not being able to speak English at London Met?
I do not know all the students, but it is quite strange because when you apply for a visa you are supposed to provide a proof, some sort of certificate that proves your level of English.
What will you do if you do get deported?
This is a very weird question. I cannot predict the future, but I will not give up this fight, no way.
Are you a current London Met student or a student elsewhere?
Well I was, but now I represent international students here in the UK.
So what brought you down here today?
The government is continuing to attack international students, there’s tens of thousands of them and the only way they can do this is by reducing international student numbers by placing severe restrictions on their rights. I think what’s happening at London Met is just a sign of a wider thing, but it’s also really the turning point, the breaking point for many international students who feel bad about how they’re being treated.
Do you think this could be the start of a wider policy of kicking international students out of university, then?
Well, I sure hope this is the end of the wider policy of kicking them out, but I think this is the start of a long fight.
Do you think its anti-immigration or possibly even racist policy? A lot of people here today do.
Yes, yeah I think there’s a lot of subliminal racism when we talk about immigration, and it’s a shame no one is standing up. It’s easy to blame immigrants when the economy is rough but it’s not easy to find another solution.
As a Brazilian, what was it that brought you to the UK originally?
I don’t know, the UK just always had a great international reputation, but it's one that I’m afraid to say it doesn’t have any more.
What brought you down here today?
Bellolukman: I am one the student committee, I’m the vice president of the welfare and diversity department. The lives of a lot of our students have been put in danger.
Do you think it’s a racist policy, like a lot of people have been saying today, rather than an issue of legality?
It’s racist. It’s politically motivated. They say they want to fulfill their political promises when they are campaigning and they want to reduce immigration. But they are doing it blindly, just attacking people that are in this country legally.
What do you think about the stories of bad attendance, students not speaking English, etc.?
Yeah, I don’t know if I’m speaking a language different from English [laughs] and if these students are a large percentage, but I don’t know where they are getting these statistics. Before we even get our visa to come to the UK from our country, we must do an English test.
Do you think this is the start of a wider problem? Do you think they’re going to move onto more universities?
They are using London Met as a testing ground. If they succeed there, all the universities in the UK will be in for it, because it is hard on the UK education and this is one of the things we are fighting against. We have trust in the higher education of the UK, which is why we come here.
What do you think the future is for international students in the UK?
Well to me, with this coalition government, there is no future for international student in this country.
After the last of the speakers, the decision was made to march to the front door of power itself, Downing Street. The troops mobilised, opening their banners like the wings of a sweaty hawk with a university course to finish and a firm grasp of Esperanto, switching on their loudspeakers and then struggling to discuss which was the quickest route over the din.
I know the copper in the picture looks pretty calm, but the police panicked at seeing the mob moving towards them. First they shouted a lot and waved their arms in the air, then they cack-handedly tried to push the protesters back, this guy proving that if you carry a Palestinian flag, you get treated like a Palestinian.
At the end of the road, reinforcements arrived, spilling out of the meat wagons like a pissed off coach party at a service station. They put their showerfaces on and set about forming an imposing human chain.
Tempers were frayed in the semi-kettling that ensued. The police were telling the protesters that they were merely closing the roads ahead for the route, and while I believed them, you couldn't help but get the impression they were holding them back to suck the momentum out of the march. The protesters were a frothing bottle of pop which the authorities needed to put a thumb on before it fizzed all over the tourists and their cameras.
The chant of the afternoon was definitely "Hey, Ho / Theresa May must go!" sung to a catchy tune which may or may not have been based on 2 Live Crew's seminal protest anthem "We Want Some Pussy" – seriously, it sounded a lot like that, which must surely make it the "The Times They Are a-Changin'" for the Miami bass generation. (What, you're NOT part of the Miami bass generation? Next you'll be telling me your girlfriend can't booty clap.)
A variety of Zone 1 weirdoes looked on at the kettle, as if what was going on here could be any stranger than whatever the hell this unlikely duo were up to.
Separated from my photographer, because I didn't have that AAA backstage protest pass of a digital camera, I'd been hemmed into a strange, moving snail convoy of people heading towards Whitehall. It was hard to build up any pace, people were shouting a lot. It was like leaving a gig if it took an hour.
Eventually we reached the icons of power. The tourists from Oklahoma and Okinawa looked on as if this were a grim reminder of Britain's violent colonial past, a persecuted slave fly in the ointment of beautiful sunshine and Team GB positivity.
Outside Downing Street, the protesters attempted their only show of real civil disobedience, sitting down in the middle of the road like so many have done before them. However, it wasn't quelled by burly coppers lifting people off the ground, night-sticking them and stamping on their flags. Order was restored by the strangely matey "Police Liaison Officers", who joked with the protesters like amiable devil's advocates. They're a common sight at protests these days, their faux friendliness made even more sinister by the fact that they are all wired for sound like mafia rats, recording everything you say as they try to buddy the rage out of you.
As the protesters were ushered into their second pen of the day, like cattle turned away from the slaughterhouse, it became clear that the fight had gone out of this one. Was I going to stand around in a pen for an indefinite amount of time for a fairly futile cause? I don't think so. There was an impotence to today's proceedings, you couldn't help but admire the smooth policing, the way they managed to choke the spirit out of things.
Today might have been a let down in the genuine agitation stakes, but next Friday promises to be a little more interesting. A second, nationwide protest is planned, with rumours of occupations and those who actually want a tear up getting involved. From the sounds of things, this could be just the start in an Indian summer of trouble for the government.
Photos: Henry Langston
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