Today, on The Public Medievalist, I’m going to get personal.
First, the news. Today, in the UK, the new Home Secretary Amber Rudd announced plans to crack down on overseas students and work visas, ostensibly as a way to limit immigration. This has been a long time coming; Theresa May—now Prime Minister—openly attacked foreign students during her tenure as Home Secretary. Now, in a post-Brexit vote world, where the UK is violently lurching towards racist isolationism, foreign students are once again within the government’s sights.
A bit about me. In 2003, I spent a semester abroad in London and got my first taste of living truly outside my cultural comfort zone. It was wonderful. It felt like home. So, in 2005, I went back. I didn’t really look anywhere but the UK for grad schools. I spent one of the best years of my life at the University of York, and another four at the University of Leeds. After that I spent two and a half years impoverished and underemployed there. I was unable to get a job in British academia due to a combination of the 2008 economic meltdown, the Tory scrambling of the ways that UK universities were funded, and no doubt because I had to declare my visa status with every application. But even during that time when everything was falling apart, it was home.
But there were cracks showing. Cabbies who’d spent the past fifteen minutes railing against immigrants pivoted immediately when declaring myself to be one. I was “one of the good ones.” Of course I was; I was educated. I was white. I had money – or at least enough to scrape by.
I had, in fact, sacrificed quite a bit to be there. I took loan after loan – the British Pound was strong back then – and wrote checks totaling about $100,000 to two British Universities. I worked the scant jobs I was permitted to; office assistant here, temporary lecturer there. I contributed. I gave public lectures and interviews for the BBC. I made friends and became a part of the community. I baked, goddammit.
And when I had to leave because my time had run out, I came back to the US with my tail between my legs. Between bouts of incredible homesickness, I wondered what had happened – how I had failed. And over the years since, I have watched the UK lurch, shambling, towards lashing out at immigrants. I kept – I keep – wondering why some of the most intelligent, well-educated people in the world can be so utterly small. Why the same nation who had welcomed me with open arms into their small, idiosyncratic homes—and lives—could also be the one that would look at others like me and sneer. I could see my boss at my admin job—the same one who baked me lemon drizzle cake on my birthday—reading right-wing websites on her breaks.
My story is common. There are 167,000 new overseas students per year in the UK. We constitute a massive part of the UK economy, and its international prestige. We contribute immeasurably to British society in ways less quantifiable or mercenary than that. We become a part of Britain, and Britain becomes a part of us.
But in light of today’s announcement by the Home Secretary, which touts a commission they will be setting up to slash the number of foreign students, it has become clear to me that I never was “one of the good ones.” Sure, my skin color, my (loan) money, my good English may have set me above the rest—according to the Home Office at least. But really, I was just another foreigner threatening to take a British job. That became immediately apparent every time I applied for a job for which I was uniquely qualified and didn’t even get a “no thank you”, let alone an interview. Or when I heard that even the University from which I graduated had two piles of applications—one British, one foreign. I began the process with two strikes against me.
Contrast this with study, after study, after study that shows that immigrants—even less-skilled ones—have a net-positive effect on the economy. We don’t take jobs, we help make them. And contrast this with the qualitative evidence that shows how immigrants make a country a more vibrant, more exciting, more interesting place to live. And contrast that with just basic human decency which whispers—in a very small voice—that people are happier when they can choose their home.
The academic community is supposed to welcome everyone who wants to better themselves. The research community is made immeasurably poorer when we throw up barriers. And keeping foreign students who want to learn out is tantamount to hoarding riches. The British government may see itself as Smaug, a powerful dragon jealously guarding a sea of untold riches from a hoard of thieves. But this policy makes it more like Gollum, burying itself in a cave to protect its precious—pathetic, sniveling, alone.
I have no answers for this. I do not know how those in the UK can fix this, since today’s announcement is the beginning of the horror rather than the end. But I would urge every Briton I know to fight this government’s policies in any way that they can. Because I can’t anymore. It’s not my home.