Ana Oppenheim, Arts SU Campaigns Officer & NUS National Exec
International students are not real migrants, are they? They only come here for a few years and leave. They pay lots of money and fund our universities. They don’t steal anyone’s jobs, are usually middle-class, well-behaved and widely accepted by society. This is why we should defend them.
These sorts of arguments will sound all too familiar to many of us. It comes as no surprise when they are used by MPs and Vice-Chancellors. Sadly, in one form or another, they are often also put forward by representatives of the UCU and sections of the student movement, usually when arguing that international students should be removed from migration statistics.
“Students coming into our country are not migrants, but here to study,” we hear, as if attacks on international students were happening in isolation from the government’s anti-migrant agenda. Yet visa restrictions, NHS charges, landlord checks, and the threat of linking international recruitment to TEF are policies motivated by racism – the same racism that’s behind laws targeting other immigrants in the UK.
A lot of the arguments used to defend international students fit into the wider narrative into migration, where our worth depends on how much we “contribute,” usually followed by “to the economy.” Migrants are good, we hear, because they are doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, or at least clean our streets – not because they are people who deserve the same rights and freedoms as everyone else. Similarly, a common case for supporting international students is that they “fund our universities” – instead of questioning the sky-high fees that students are charged in the first place.
Another common trope is basing a defence of migrants on how much their stories can move hearts, or how well they fit into society’s idea of a perfect citizen. Child refugees are welcome as long as they’re small and cute, not when they look like young men. Anti-deportation campaigns often emphasise that the person at risk is a “good student” and “popular in their community” as if whether or not one deserves basic rights depended on how well they do on their course or how many friends they have. Speaking of international students, many bring up reports about the British public’s positive attitudes towards them, when making a case for less restrictive policies. These arguments pander to existing prejudices and do nothing to challenge hate against the majority of migrants.
We will not effectively fight back by dividing migrants into good and bad, worthy or unworthy, students and workers. Our humanity does not depend on respectability or on how effectively we can be exploited. We can only effectively defend international students by combating racism and xenophobia in all their forms. We need to unite our forces with those facing the same struggles and strive for a world without discrimination based on nationality. There are no good or bad migrants but there are good and bad arguments.