Home Office rules mean non-British academics can be denied right to strike

Universities talk of internationalisation, yet international staff’s right to remain may be under threat from government rules. shutterstock.com

A few weeks ago – back when we used to teach and research rather than stand at picket-lines challenging the marketisation of the university – we discovered that we share something in common. As international staff our right to strike and participate in peaceful, collective action is limited by the Home Office.

Days before the UK-wide universities strike we were anonymously slipped the following information under our door, printed off and photocopied from the University and College Union (UCU) website:

For staff employed under a Tier 2 visa, you should be aware that your sponsor is required to report unauthorised absence (such as strike action) if it continues for more than ten consecutive days … your sponsor is required to report unauthorised absences to the Home Office.

The Home Office considers industrial or strike action as an unauthorised absence. So if you take industrial action for more than ten consecutive days, or if you miss ten or more ‘expected contacts’ without permission, your sponsor must report this to the Home Office, and your sponsorship will be revoked.

More information about what the Home Office says can be found here.

We are in no way suggesting that any official from Exeter University was responsible for this note and the details above come from our union’s website.
A spokesman for the university said: “The Home Office sets visa conditions, which are outlined as soon as international staff join the university, and by law sponsors of overseas staff on Tier 2 visas are required to report unauthorised absences of ten days or more in a row. Exeter University has never stopped sponsoring anyone because they took part in industrial action.”
(A full response from the university can be found at the end of this article.)

The content of the note, however, was unnerving. Though there are no ten consecutive days of strikes planned by the UCU, this government policy, in effect, undermines UCU’s striking power. For us, it also raised concerns about how the university sector in which we work and how universities collaborate with the state in monitoring and restricting international staff and students more generally, is at odds with the “internationalisation” strategies that are now firmly embedded in the business plans of contemporary UK universities. And, we consider how to challenge what we see as dangerous trends.

Border control

In some respects, we already knew that universities – like hospitals, schools, cities – are asked to participate in border control. A requirement of our jobs as academics, for instance, is to monitor the attendance of students, including our overseas students. The data we compile could be shared with the UK Visas and Immigration division of the Home Office.

As a 2012 London Metropolitan University case revealed, failure to comply with this monitoring process means that universities risk losing their licence to sponsor international student visas. But we think complying with this request means that academics are effectively doing the job of immigration officials.

We are ashamed to say that as “good little academics” we participated in this, seemingly banal, bureaucracy that could put people’s visas at risk. We are ashamed to admit that it took us being exposed to these mechanisms of surveillance and data sharing work to truly pause.

Out on strike.
Sam Kinsley, CC BY-ND

Rather than dwell on feelings of shame, though, our hope is to promote conversation and solidarity between staff in universities (academic, support and those on zero-hour contracts across the sector) as well as students in forging change. We do not have clear answers. But, as academics, we do have some questions to incite this collective work:

  • How can we become less deferential to strategies that champion “internationalisation”, when our own international colleagues across the sector feel unsafe in the places they work?
  • Rather than selling narratives of the “Global University” (at open days and to our colleagues abroad with whom we are asked to network) what about addressing the realities of people leaving over pension disputes and Brexit?
  • How can we create safe places to host collective conversations about vital issues like our right to remain? (As we write, academic friends from Durham University face deportation.)

A tool for resistance

For us, this strike has done more than remind us of our own precarious visa status (which is still relatively privileged) as international academic staff in this country. It has identified much more than dodgy pension schemes. For us, this strike exposes the intractable tensions that underpin the logic of our universities.

Unlike those in senior management roles, we have intimate knowledge of these tensions for we live them everyday. We feel these tensions when we are asked to complete more tasks in less time. Or when we witness student anxiety mount as we employ the very metrics that contribute to our own mental health crisis. Or when we watch Universities UK slash our pensions with one hand while academics are patted on the head for moving up in league tables. This strike has demonstrated that these tensions are simply untenable.

That we experience these tensions so intimately is both – as Derrida might say – a cure and curse. It is a curse, of course, because existing in such a state is wearying. It is so exhausting that many are choosing to leave universities altogether or limp along, no longer able to take joy in the production and sharing of knowledge.

But, it is possibly also a cure because these lived experiences give us expertise that might be mobilised to identify where and how the system is broken. From our collective experience we can point out where contradictions lie (often to be found in ironic-sounding corporate strategies like “Making the Exceptional Happen”).

Refusing to optimistically live with these cruel tensions that are happening across universities and instead expose them for what they are seems like an important political step. It is a step we witness our colleagues taking on the picket line, and it is a step we hope to keep taking together.

This article was amended on March 14 to correct some factual inaccuracies that appeared in the piece: the Highly Trusted Sponsors status referred to was abolished in 2015 and UK Border Agency was replaced by UK Visas and Immigration in 2013. The piece should have been clearer in asserting that the note passed to the authors could have come from any number of parties. And, quite rightly, The Conversation should have given the opportunity of response to the university, which we have now done. We apologise for the errors and have taken steps to clear up any potentially misleading statements contained in the article and to make clearer that the ten-day rule is set by the Home Office not universities.

A spokesman for the University of Exeter said:

Exeter University supports the right of all staff, including international staff, to strike if they are union members. International staff are very welcome and valued here at Exeter and the numbers of international staff on Tier 2 visas has gone up by around a third in the past three years. The university not only contributes to international academics’ relocation costs but contributes to their visa costs too, and provides support and help for immigration issues.

The implication by Dr Cinnamon and Dr Bagelman that the university distributed notes anonymously to intimidate international staff – and behaved like border guards – is baloney. The advice they refer to is from their own union’s website and the university has nothing to do with it.

To suggest that the university behaves like border guards or restricts the right of international staff to strike is just not true. The Home Office sets visa conditions, which are outlined as soon as international staff join the university, and by law sponsors of overseas staff on Tier 2 visas are required to report unauthorised absences of ten days or more in a row. Exeter University has never stopped sponsoring anyone because they took part in industrial action.

The Conversation

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.