Activism and Academia: 'We Are Not Border Agents'

Students not suspects
By Brendan Donegan · 22 May 2012
Students not suspects

UK government policy on overseas students has come back into the news recently. The coalition government has announced a range of measures that target overseas students, with Immigration Minister Damian Green stating that ‘We are reforming the student visa system because it has been abused for too long, with providers selling immigration, not education.’

Universities and think-tanks have argued that the measures the government is introducing will reduce student numbers, not abuse of the system. They suggest the government is prioritising short-term political considerations (the need to cut headline migration by ‘tens of thousands’ in time for the 2015 general election) over the financial contribution that overseas students make to the UK economy in general and cash-strapped universities in particular, a contribution that amounts to several billion pounds every year.

I want to talk about an activist response to UK government policy on overseas students: a campaign I was involved in as a tutor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). The campaign emerged as a response to the discovery that under the Points-Based Immigration System (PBSI) introduced across UK universities on 31 March 2009, higher education institutions are expected to take on duties including monitoring overseas student and staff attendance. Under PBSI, universities are required to report to the UK Border Agency (UKBA) any non-EU students who fail to attend ten ‘expected interactions.’ In extreme cases, this can lead to deportation.


A London-wide campaign on this issue started to emerge in early 2010, with six departments in Goldsmiths College and one department at SOAS making statements that they will not comply with UKBA on this issue, and individual staff members in at least two other SOAS departments refusing to submit tutorial attendance records in the 2009-10 academic year. Two t-shirt slogans adopted by the campaign were ‘We are not border agents’ (worn by tutors) and ‘student not suspect’ (worn by students).

In relation to the Oecumene project, this campaign raises interesting questions about the inscription of the national border (and its policing) across diverse terrains and territories including within the classroom, and about the range of ways in which ‘activist citizens’ might respond. The border, popularly imagined as a line one must cross, is non-linear, in at least two senses. Firstly, as Olga Massanet puts it, contemporary ‘societies of control...are not about enclosure, but about tracked fluidity,’ so that the border post is encountered not once but at every step, yet remains invisible to those recognised as citizens because they pass it unhindered. Secondly, continuing to cross the border may in some cases even defy a linear concept of time, for example when conditions of the Highly Skilled Migrant Programme are changed retrospectively.

At the same time as the Students Not Suspects campaign was emerging, the Philosophy Department at  Middlesex University was being closed down, and students and staff had begun an occupation in response. I imagine some people might consider that getting involved in the Middlesex occupation was a much more worthy act than kicking up a ‘storm in a teacup’ about tutorial attendance records. To articulate my response to this interpretation I want to reference an argument put forward by Hugo Gorringe in a 2010 article in Cultural Dynamics, an argument that draws inspiration from this activist text. Gorringe contrasts a vision of activism ‘conceived as a specialist role and sequestered off from everyday life, confined to periodic shows of force and a Quixotic tilting at the windmills of caste or capitalism’ with a broader vision of struggle as necessarily also ‘embedded in people’s everyday lives, concerns and interactions.’ From my perspective, those who would valorise involvement in the Middlesex occupation, but characterise actions taken by some staff over tutorial attendance records as a storm in a teacup, seem to adhere to the first of these activist visions.

I prefer the second. To borrow a turn-of-phrase from the Queen Mary Countermapping Collective , I believe the struggle to challenge and change how we understand citizenship cannot be something that only happens ‘out there’, on ‘the streets’ in spectacular protests or legal action organised ‘around some foreign banner such as an academic discipline, or someone else’s problems’. The role of academics in relation to struggles need not only be to act as mediators translating these actions into a form that can reach other types of actors elsewhere; the struggle can and must also involve academics as activists in their own lives, taking action in or out of their own workplace.

Learn more about: Orientalising citizens

About the author

  • Dr Brendan Donegan

    Activist Consultant
    Brendan Donegan
    Goldsmiths University of London
    The focus of my professional work has been teaching and social research, with a focus on poverty and inequality in India and in the UK. I completed my PhD in Social Anthropology at SOAS, University... Read more

Oecumene: Citizenship after Orientalism is funded by an European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant (Institutions, values, beliefs and behaviour ERC-AG-SH2).

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