We need to rethink the treatment of international students

I arrive in London on a midnight plane with my parents and sister. We walk up to the immigration counter and present our passports to the border control lady. She asks us a few questions that could be taken for a casual attempt at conversation. So far, so normal. Then she asks for our fingerprints — my sister’s and mine. She doesn’t ask  for my parents, because they’re tourists, but she asks us, because we are foreign and we live here.

An act of translation took place when I arrived in the UK three years ago. I became ‘international’. Not Singaporean, not ethnically Chinese (though sometimes that’s all some people can see), neither the president of my high school’s drama club, nor a girl who had been used to feeling attractive and generally well-liked. I became part of an amorphous, catch-all group defined not in relation to what we were, but what we were not. British students were ‘home’; we were the away team.

Taking our fingerprints at the gate was, on one level, entirely standard procedure, ensuring that we were who our visas said we were. But it was also an act that connoted suspicion and surveillance. It was an act that said, we know who you are, we know where to find you, and tabs must be kept on you because you do not belong here.

When I was a freshers’ rep for Exeter, we talked about the international students that no one ever sees, because they’re hidden in their rooms or hanging out with other students from their country. Everyone who talks about this unanimously agrees that it’s a shame that ‘international students don’t feel more like they’re part of the college community’ this is always phrased so as to point the finger at no one. But nobody talks about how this is rooted in the very system our university and this country employs. In spite of the fact that Oxford pursues a strategy of drawing ‘students and staff of the highest international calibre to the university’, no effort is made to dispel the impression received upon arrival  that international students are fundamentally unwelcome in this country. We are shut out from the financial safety net provided by our university or college bursaries, even as we are batteled every term for a contribution to them. We pay extortionate fees that simultaneously fund the education of home students and segregate us from them. Such are the contradictions of a migrant’s life.

I don’t have much more money than the average Oxford student — my university education comes out of my father’s retirement savings. Yet Oxford is privileged, in the global market for education, to have a near monopoly on the highest standards of learning in my subject; the price I pay for my time here is not that which I am happy to pay, but that which I have to pay.

There seems to be an unspoken assumption that international students are funded by wealthy benefactors, be it their parents or a scholarship board, and that they can therefore afford the extortionate overseas tuition fees. I challenge this notion: I can scarcely afford it, but I am paying it nonetheless. Over the past two years, my fees have quietly increased about £1800 from the original £18,620. If I were a home student, an increase of this size would undoubtedly have sparked a protest. But as an international student, I inhabit an artificial group with little solidarity or protesting power.

The psychological impact of what can seem like mere cosmetic differences is profound. The price international students pay to come to Oxford is not measured only in pounds, but in the years we miss of our aging parents’ lives, the siblings whose adolescence passes us by, and the friends at home who grow distant and strange. As a result, although we receive the same education as everyone else, our time here holds an ocean of meaning that separates us from home students. Our past lives have been sacrificed for the present. When the stern time limit on our visas expire, we will once again be leaving the place and community which we have tried to make our home. This is of course the inescapable plight of all migrants, but the lack of understanding and support shown by a university which claims to ‘offer environments which are…characterised by a defining and enduring sense of community’ is both uninspiring and hypocritical.

The energy that freshers’ reps put into making our colleges welcoming places fails to gloss over the deep, systemic apathy and antipathy towards foreigners that is so acutely felt. Is it any wonder few international students choose to invest in their communities here? The contradictions implicit in our higher fees send a message that is difficult to reconcile with the professed ‘friendliness’ of our colleges: we’d like you to contribute and conform, but not to belong.

Any international student who hopes to be accepted as part of their college community must try to forget about that which separates us from our friends, but no one can avoid the periodic reminders that we have given an inordinate measure of power over our lives to the government of a country that does not welcome us.

A recent trend in scholarship across disciplines has been to emphasize recovering and giving voice to the experience of marginalised and silenced communities; in our classes, we are taught to question structures of privilege and power, and we learn that blissful ignorance perpetuates injustice. It is with great joy that I see friends championing issues of homelessness, feminism, LGBT rights, poverty and more. But the greatest contradiction of my time at Oxford has been felt in the gap between the way we theorize about inclusiveness and the everyday experience of inhospitality and apathy that international students face.