My three years as a student have already been hit significantly by strikes. This time around, however, I am going to be crossing the picket lines. It’s a fact that I, like many other international students, have no choice on the matter. We have to cross the line.
Unions across England are standing united in huge numbers, repeatedly going on strike. In December 2022, there was a strike every day. By the end of February 2023, there will have been over 3,000 picket lines spread across the country.
One such picket line can be found in our University, where staff are striking. Members of the University and College Union (UCU) have been striking for the fourth consecutive year now. They are striking with the same four fights as they have before. So what is different this time?
Well this time, the UCU has announced plans for its members to be on strike for 18 days across February and March. That is the highest number of strike days that the UCU has ever announced.
But this decision comes at a cost for international students. Most international students are on tier four (general) student visas. This visa determines everything that we get to do in the UK; from whether we can use the NHS, to how many hours we can work in a week.
One such clause also determines our time at the University. Our attendance is recorded and sent to the Home Office, which decides if we have been attending classes regularly enough. The University also has to make sure that we attend these classes.
However, with 18 days of strikes planned, questions loom over whether or not we can make the required amount of days. There are a lot of hoops to jump through and understand in this area.
The best-case scenario in this context is where the lecturer is on strike. Student attendance is not marked as the class is cancelled. In this case, the Home Office does not see this negatively on the student, so there are no worries.
The second case is when a lecturer strikes but a substitute is brought in. In this case, the class is going ahead, so attendance does matter.
In the third scenario, the lecturer doesn’t strike even though it is a strike day. This is the situation many students find themselves in. Students who don’t wish to cross the picket line will be marked absent.
In the second and third scenarios, the Home Office will be keeping a track of the attendance of international students. In case a student is absent, it will be looked at negatively by the Home Office, as there would they would believe that the immigrant student is not doing the work that they said they would.
Hence, this puts international students in a precarious position. Even if we want to agree with the strikes, join the picket lines, and do more, we can’t. We do not have the safety net to do this.
Here’s what three other international students said about why they have no other choice but to cross a picket line.
I feel stigmatised every time I need to cross the picket line
Alex, a second year Politics student from France, has been protesting on the UCU picket lines since her first year. She joined her lecturers marching down Oxford Road and campaigning to make the University listen to the UCU.
“I love what the UCU stands for. It’s something I believe in myself,” she says. “They are making sure that we don’t have to face anything similar. Two years down the line when I enter the workforce, who is to say that I won’t have to strike on similar grounds”.
However, this time around, Alex will not be joining her lecturers on the picket lines. She says that she has no other option; she has to attend class. But in doing so she feels like she is being stigmatised by her peers.
“I think my flatmates don’t understand the position us internationals are in,” she laments. “I need to go to class or there is a huge risk to me continuing to stay in the UK. But everyone I tell this to makes a mockery out of me”.
Alex says there are just two reactions she receives when admitting she has to cross the pickets. “It’s either disappointment or jokes. I feel stigmatised every time I cross the picket lines”.
She claims to have become a social outcast because of this. Saying that every time she even wants to discuss politics, she is met with a reaction that mimics her in such a way that she is discredited from the point she was making.
I want to stay in this country… crossing picket lines secures that wish
Arjun, a third year Business student from India, wants to continue staying in this country for longer as well. He receives his bachelor’s this year, after which he hopes to get a graduate scheme in London and work for longer.
Arjun’s teachers are not striking with the UCU. He states, “They all stay away from politics. They do not see the virtue of striking, instead, some stated that striking should not be acceptable”.
He used to disagree with his lecturers on this point last year. Now, however, he says he is “…confused. I do not know what I can do here. I want to stay in this country, but if I don’t go to my class I may not be able to. Crossing picket lines secures that wish.”
He is not sure which side of the argument he will tend to go towards. He says that currently, he doesn’t know if he will cross the picket lines and go to class.
18 days! Seems like they haven’t considered one-third of the students at all
Louis, a second year Law student from China, was unaware of the length of the UCU strikes. They have always maintained that it is hard to be an international student during times of strikes.
They said, “Every time strikes get announced I do not know what to do. ‘Do I support them or not?’ is a question I do not know the answer to. I just feel left out of the conversation most of the time”.
They explained that they feel left out because there are no provisions for international students. “We have to pay a lot more in tuition”, they say. “Our attendance is constantly recorded. However, no one seems to be ever considering this, even though we make up a huge portion of Manchester students”.
I asked for their opinion on the 18-day strike this time around and they were completely shocked by it. “18 days! Seems like they haven’t considered one-third of the students at all. It’s worse than it has been ever before. A big part of me just feels pissed off”.
The hard truth is that there will be a lot of international students who will be crossing the picket lines this month and next. If they don’t cross the pickets, they risk their chance of being in this country, and if they do cross it then they are afraid of getting stigmatised. It’s like they are stuck between a rock and hard place.
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