It's a funny thing, deciding who "counts" as a migrant. How would you classify a family that recently moved to the UK from Bulgaria? What about a family of Brits who've set up in the south of Spain? Your mate on their way to Australia on a work visa?
Big names in the British government can't seem to reach a consensus when it comes to the thousands of international students who move to the UK each year. When, in October, chancellor of the exchequer Philip Hammond suggested that they shouldn't be considered immigrants, Theresa May binned his idea. Then Boris Johnson turned out to be on Hammond's side, deeming international students "a massive benefit to this country" on ITV on Sunday, citing the fact that while he was shadow spokesman for higher education their fees contributed £5 billion to the higher education economy (the actual total was closer to £4.2 billion in 2015).
Rather than have the politicians talk among themselves, we asked some former international students how much they felt like "migrants" while studying in the UK.
WENT TO UNIVERSITY OF SUSSEX
I did an exchange in Newcastle for a year as an undergrad, then came back for my Masters in Brighton. I didn't consider myself an immigrant because I knew that I was going to leave. The UK law is so strict that they don't even let us stay in the country for a year to look for a job any more, sadly.
I think it's easier for European students who are part of the EU because they pay a lot less and can stay after uni easily. I wish it was like that for us, too/ In terms of how foreign I felt, Newcastle and Brighton were different. I was a part of freshers in Newcastle, so everybody was young and some of them hadn't even seen an Asian person before, so they would be more distant with me. It seemed like they didn't know how to communicate with me, but it was nothing bad or mean – it just seemed like they weren't used to it.
As I said, I never considered myself an immigrant, but that was because I was only staying for a year and my family was back in Japan. I always had somewhere to go back to. An "immigrant" sounds like someone who commits to stay in a different country – though I wish I could have stayed.
DE MONTFORT UNIVERSITY
I personally didn't consider myself an immigrant, but I think that's due to me integrating. Most of my friends were British and I worked at an English-speaking company. Also, I've loved English culture since I was young, so I always wanted to be as close to British as I could get.
People have made jokes about me being foreign, but they weren't mean and I knew that if it did offend me the person who said it would apologise. The only thing that made me feel foreign is how people can eat mushy peas and chip cobs.
Being in Leicester made it easier in some ways because people there are used to foreign people. But at the same time, people who have had bad experiences with some foreign people treat us as if we are all the same. Generally, I think people don't treat anyone differently if they feel that the person is trying to integrate and actually learn to be part of the country.
I stayed in the UK after graduation because it was always my dream country, and I was made to feel welcomed. I know some people will have different experiences but I personally loved it and wanted to stay; this is only because I integrated and treated this country as my new home and not just a way to get a good education.
FROM HONG KONG
WENT TO LONDON COLLEGE OF COMMUNICATION (UAL)
On paper I did consider myself an immigrant. Because I don't hold a UK passport I had to get a visa, and when I arrived I had to go to a police station and register myself with the Met. LCC also made international students sign in every week to prove they were in class. I understand why, but if I forgot to sign they would send me emails saying that the Home Office would be notified and I might get deported.
Otherwise, mentally, no. I grew up around people of all backgrounds, which helped me relate to English culture pretty easily, so a lot of my friends never considered me "foreign". I'm of Chinese descent, so when people hear me speak they're always like, "Oh, your English is great." There are a lot of weirdos who have yellow fever and think I'm their way in, but other than that, it was OK. Living in London made life easier as my friends never considered me foreign.
I don't know whether migrants should be classed as separate to students. At the end of the day, regardless of where you're from you're just doing what every other student is doing and learning the same things. It feels like you pump a ton of money into an institution, and just when you've kind of adapted to the country you're told to leave. Even if you have loads to offer, you're still foreign, which is kinda a huge "fuck off" to your face.
I didn't stay in the UK because my visa expired, and getting another one is really hard unless you have a company that wants to sponsor you. I did try to fake marry some of my friends so I could stay, but being stingy dickheads they joked about me paying for it.
WENT TO DE MONTFORT UNIVERSITY
During my studies I always thought it wasn't permanent, so I never really considered myself a migrant, but since I've been here for five years doing my PhD I consider myself more one now.
I only intended to stay for a few months after my Masters, but then I got a scholarship for my PhD in Leicester. At the beginning of my PhD I thought about returning to Germany, but now it's coming to an end I'm contemplating staying for a bit longer. I always say I want to return to Germany to have a family there, but I don't have to rush back.
It is quite hard to draw the line between international students and migrants. I don't think international students are migrants, and I would only consider them as such if they decide to stay beyond their studies – but maybe it's different with PhD or part-time students who have to work while they study.
WENT TO UNIVERSITY OF SUSSEX
I did not consider myself an immigrant when I studied in the UK; I was part of society and had health insurance, a bank account, student loans. I also worked in bar jobs and as part of a government-sponsored training programme for teachers-to-be. Perhaps it's my upbringing – I moved around all the time – that makes me feel at ease in different places and cultures. In any case, the UK became my second home – and still is. To me, British society is a patchwork of many different people.
I did witness racism and bigotry, and this seems to have become part of the mainstream discourse now in the UK, which is horrifying. It was easier for me, though, as I was living in Brighton – a liberal haven of creatives, the LGBTQ community and people from all over. I left the UK after I graduated, but I still come back often.
However, I have strong reservations about the UK. As a European citizen, I have a choice of where I want to live and work, and in recent years this place has no longer been the UK. Speaking from my experience, many of the international students I knew stayed to continue their studies or work in the country, all while contributing to the local economy. They represent the educated and, generally, resourceful group of immigrants – the kind that countries want to retain. But they are immigrants nonetheless. However, it is quite cynical to handpick the kind of migrant you want. Immigration is part of the UK's history and social make-up, and has great economic and cultural benefits to Britain.
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