My name is Idil Akinci, I am 27 years old and I come from Turkey. I am an international student who moved to the UK in order to take on a Masters degree in Sociology from which I recently received a distinction. I was not so privileged as to receive scholarship and neither did my family have the means to sponsor me, so I used my savings from the four years I worked in Dubai to pay for the tuition fees.
Many people tried to talk me out of doing my masters in London. It was one of the most expensive cities in the World; but also, the borders were getting stricter by the day where international students had no chance but to leave as soon as they had graduated. Until a few years ago, foreign students were given two years’ extension of their student visa in order to seek employment and remain in the UK if they wished to or if they were able to find a sponsor.
But I decided to go for London, despite having other offers from European institutions, which are as reputable even if they did not have the cultural diversity that drew me to London. I was going to study multicultural societies so what would be a better place I thought to myself and I was right. And despite being resentful to the migration policies, which is why I am writing this article, I do not regret a minute that I studied my masters here in London. It has been a great experience where I had the chance to meet with world renowned scholars, discuss, network and share ideas with them as well as attend to public lectures given by top politicians and academics. London gives you these opportunities at your doorstep.
However, from a legal point of view, things have not been as pleasant. So here is my experience with the migration policies of the UK as an international student.
As I mentioned, I submitted my master thesis in the end of September this year when the term officially ended. I had my Tier 4 student visa until January 2014 as I was initially told that the official graduation ceremony would take place sometime in January. Therefore my Tier 4 visa was valid until the 30th of January 2014, while the school year ended in September'13.
A week ago, my university announced the official graduation date. Many international students have been worried for a long time about arranging flights and visas for their families. The graduation was announced as 31st of January. This is right after the very day the international students’ visa, expires! In these circumstances we were asked to pay for a return ticket back to our home countries and apply for tourist visas, which costs 80 GBP and considerable waiting time.
While the date of the graduation is obviously very bad planning from my university, the most unfair thing is that we are forced to apply for a General Visitor visa if we want to attend our own graduation ceremony - even if our current Tier 4 Student visa is still valid.
To start with I have paid 300 GBP for Tier 4 visa which now does not even allow me to attend my own graduation. At a stage where I and many of my fellow students have been without income for over a year, it seems unreasonable is to expect us to travel back overseas and apply for another visa. I am from Turkey, which is fortunately rather close by to the UK. But how about those people in my class who are come from USA, China, Japan, Vietnam or Kazakhstan? Is it fair that unless you have the means, you cannot be at your own graduation? And moreover why should I need to go back to my country to apply for a new visa when my current 300 GBP-visa is still valid and I am technically still a student until I officially graduate?
This last incident is an excellent example of how international students, who every year contribute with millions to the UK education system are treated. The issue goes beyond the practical and financial hassles this has caused to the treatment of overseas students from a basic human and migrant rights perspective.
This has been the most costly and ironically the most inhospitable experience I have had as a migrant, visitor, student or expat in any country I ever lived in; the Netherlands, the UAE, Sri Lanka... Since the day I chose to study in the UK, I have felt under constant surveillance. It has been an utterly unpleasant process to apply for a visa. Long hours of waiting and endless paper work including bank statements, official letters from my employer and many others. This is fine, or at least predictable, considering the fact that I am a Turkish citizen and this is common when travelling abroad. But some of the questions I have been asked in the application process were outright humiliating. I was asked if I planned to be involved in terrorist attacks while in the UK. And I was asked to prove that I would leave the UK soil as soon as my studies were finished. Basically, I was treated as a potential 'illegal' immigrant from the start.
Things got even worse when I landed in the UK. I was asked to travel to Borough Police station in order to register myself as an “international student”. This measure, however, was not applied to all international students but only those from a selection of countries, which supposedly pose a potential threat. I had to queue up on a cold and rainy October morning at 6 AM outside the only police station in all of London who could take on this process. Standing in the queue we had to save each other’s place if we needed to use the toilet or get something hot to drink. While everyone was furious about the way we were treated only a few were vocal about it. Some did not want to voice their concerns when they finally made it to the Police Office in case their complaints would confuse things. But the majority of us, holding less privileged passports, were simply used to being treated this way at the borders of EU countries. After waiting in the rain for more than 8 hours I finally made it into the police office. Here I spent 2 minutes having my finger prints taken once again(I need to go through this embarrassing process every time I enter the UK as if I was a potential criminal) and also pay 34 GBP. My biometrics and all other details required to track me down were already with the UK Border Agency so I wonder why I had to go through this humiliating and degrading experience.
Thankfully, following the huge number of complaints and thanks to the advocacy of NUS(The National Union of Students), the system has now been changed so students can do the registration online. But the surveillance for some of the international students did not stop there. Throughout the academic year, I have been receiving emails from the Border Agency who were constantly concerned whether I was here for studying or whether I was involving in acts beyond the scope of my Tier 4 visa. Ironically, given the general level of control, all I had to do to prove my studying was to tick a box on a link they would send me on a termly basis. The testing seemed pointless to me, and achieved little more than making me feel unwanted and unwelcome.
Now, completing my course, I unfortunately don’t hold the same opportunities or rights to participate in the job market as other students because of my Turkish citizenship. While there are no restrictions to obtain working visas for international students in theory, in practice all but a few big companies are unwilling to go through the hassle of hiring and sponsoring non-EU graduates. And for people like me looking for jobs in the non-profit sector it is particularly difficult. What is so frustrating is that I lost the game before I even started it. The starting question for most of the job opportunities is whether I have the residency and work permit to remain in the UK.
In a country where education provides £17bn to the economy, out of which £10bn comes from international students, don’t we have to rethink the way they are treated? Not that the financial aspect is the only important thing here, however the figure shows how vital the international students are to the UK economy. How about looking at recent developments on border controlling from a larger perspective? Substantial academic work has been done on the impacts of differential exclusion of certain migrants in multicultural societies where foreigners and citizens are constructed against each other based on different rights and privileges. This causes not only economic but also social segmentation where certain groups are alienated from mainstream society. While our status as international students is made temporary by the new regulations to begin with, the same system has a great impact on other types of immigrants, asylum seekers, refugees as well as families who are trying to unite which makes one question the sustainability of multiculturalism in the UK.
About the Author
Following her graduation with a Communications degree in Turkey, Idil worked in Dubai for 4 years in the field of PR, before returning to her passion, which is to study society and the inequalities within them. During her time in Dubai, she was fascinated by the social and economic hierarchies within this highly segmented society and how the descendants of the largest immigrant group, South Asians, negotiated and made sense of their legal and social exclusion from larger society. She recently pursued an MA Degree in Sociology in London with this topic that was awarded a distinction and is now preparing to take this study further with a PhD.