Politics & Society

HFT Newsletter #7

Welcome to the seventh newsletter of Hummus For Thought, a monthly collection of thoughts and recommendations, curated by Joey Ayoub (hello) from Geneva, Switzerland. It comes out on every first Sunday morning of the month. Join over 4,000 subscribers by clicking here to subscribe.

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Initial Reflections

I’ve been recently thinking about something: how do restrictive laws intersect with higher education, and how does that affect academics in unstable visa situations? I’m defining the latter as basically anyone who has to follow strict academic routes and/or juggle multiple jobs because the laws of the country restricts their freedoms.

For those who have already read or heard me complain about the visa regimes of Europe, this will likely read like yet another repetition of that same complaint. But I want to emphasize something different this time. If I just limited myself to telling you how difficult it is for a non-European (especially non-Westerner) to be in Europe, regardless of their jobs, it would likely not surprise you. And in more ways than one, I am among the lucky ones, although that statement only makes sense in comparison to those who have it even worse. In other words, it can easily lead to constructing a hierarchy of oppressive structures, and I don’t think that’s particularly useful.

Instead, I just wanted to point something out that should be more obvious by now: academia is very rarely a place where knowledge is valued. I’m talking especially of the kind of knowledge that comes through exploration. Non-European migrant academics in particular, because their visa status is tied to their productivity, are forced to prioritize the latter over exploration. This is very rarely talked about in academic circles. Indeed, I am often expected to act as if the fact that I got some, any, funding is sufficient enough (for the record, my funding is roughly enough to pay rent and buy food in Switzerland. I still have to work to make a salary in addition to that).

From my experience with three different European universities, I can confidently say now that very little attention is paid to the limits imposed on us by the visa regimes. They are either considered normal, or not considered at all. This varies from country to country, and the UK is increasingly becoming among the most hostile countries for foreign academics (it won’t surprise you to read this either, I’m guessing) but this is a problem across the continent as well, and I’ve lost count of how many friends in academia from ‘the global south’ – the peripheries – spread out throughout Europe have had to spend most of their time trying, and usually failing, to secure anything that resembles long-term stability while also trying to focus enough to dive deeply enough to write an entire dissertation. Assuming they make it to the end of that journey, they then barely have enough time to celebrate and appreciate their own achievements, because they still have to worry about their visas.

It is a very disturbing experience, one which I’m unfortunately very familiar with now. I never celebrated receiving an MA in 2016. I even got that fancy distinction attached to it. I couldn’t celebrate it because the UK’s visa regime forced me out of the country and asked me to re-apply for a visa, and re-travel to the UK, to attend my own graduation ceremony, which I didn’t do. I didn’t do it not just because it was an extraordinary waste of time and money I didn’t have, but because by early 2017 (when my UK visa was expiring, the first time around) I could already sense which way the wind was blowing in Lebanon and I knew that I had to think of anything that might resemble longer-term stability, or something close to it, to not just save myself but be able to help others stuck back home. I searched for a PhD. I knew I wanted to do one eventually but ‘eventually’ isn’t allowed to non-Europeans in Europe. It’s not an available temporality. You must prove yourself useful to capitalism and the state every single day of your life. You can’t wonder nor can you wander. I wanted to explore other things before committing 3-4-5 years of my life to a single research project. But as luck would have it, I arrived in Europe when Europe apparently decided to go through another identity crisis centered around my body and the perceived differences between myself and that never-ending fragile disaster that is whiteness, and the restrictions would only increase from now on.

So anyway, I applied and found many universities. 11 to be exact. 11 UK universities accepted my PhD proposal, because it was a damn good one (this was my monthly arrogance allowance), but not one university was willing to fund me. To add to that, I had to pay for my own PhD, because the entirety of the UK system runs on scams. So not only did I end up doing unpaid labour for the University of Edinburgh for two entire years, but my family had to pay them for it. We paid the University of Edinburgh tens of thousands of pounds while I represented that institution at a dozen conferences and through dozens of published works and media appearances. I had to take on two extra jobs to cover the costs of working for the University of Edinburgh.

When I couldn’t handle it anymore, the University of Edinburgh’s response was to backdate my visa expiry date, forcing me to leave my home of two years within a couple of weeks. I complained about this on Twitter and it got some media attention which prompted the University of Edinburgh to do what it tends to do well: nothing. I since learned that I went through was less of an exception and more of the rule, especially in the humanities. This is what ‘hostile environment’ means. If you’re happy enough not to know this, apologies in advance. Here’s a quick summary from Wikipedia: ‘The UK Home Office hostile environment policy is a set of administrative and legislative measures designed to make staying in the United Kingdom as difficult as possible for people without leave to remain, in the hope that they may “voluntarily leave”‘. Basically, for the past decade (since 2012) it has been UK government policy to be cruel. It’s that simple. That policy’s explicit purpose is to let students temporarily go to the UK, take their money, and then discard those students soon after to avoid threatening the UK’s strong and stable identity of itself, so strong and stable it constantly sees itself as under threat. As I said, the UK runs on scams.

That’s how I ended up in Switzerland, but not before witnessing the October 2019 revolution in Lebanon. As luck would have it, I had to be in Lebanon while applying for the Swiss visa. Thank you European visa regimes for allowing me to experience the only good thing I’ve ever experienced in Lebanon. Your dedication to enriching experiences is touching. More on that another time.

Last thing, since we’re on the topic of the UK. Please support #ReclaimTheseStreets.

Now let’s move on to our good friend Jimmy.

To make it easier on everyone’s browsers, the newsletter is now multi-pages.

Next page: The James Baldwin Corner

4 thoughts on “HFT Newsletter #7

  1. I shared a panel with an academic once and she went on a self-help style monologue about courage and creativity in academic research. I did my best to explain that a student’s anticipation of how she evaluates their academic work is an entirely different experience when the outcome will define their immigration status, and possibly that of their direct families.
    It’s hard to “add to the body of literature” freely and creatively when the off chance of not doing it to your supervisor’s liking could mean denial of access to the only safe land you can be in (since failing to “win” the right to remain in the U.K. for someone who comes from a conflict country could automatically deny them access to all of Europe, thanks to Dublin Regulation… so they could be stuck in an immigration limbo for decades) she entertained the idea for a minute but rapidly went back to telling me about the need to think out of the box and be courageous. These are the brains that are enriching the body of literature, whatever the hell that means!

    1. This is why I’ve stopped bothering to go on these self-help-oriented panels that my university keeps on inviting me to. I’ve been to half a dozen of them over the years and it’s always the same thing. I’ve even tried to send emails whenever they’d add stuff ‘if you still need help please send us an email’ but these would never actually end up anywhere.

      It was really baffling to learn from my first or second meeting with my supervisor at the University of Edinburgh that not attending meetings could lead to them reporting me to the home office. It was one hell of a welcome week.

      And I’m honestly among the luckier ones, despite everything. I have an Argentinian passport which I used as my backup, not that it gave me any right to actually sustain myself in the UK in any sustainable way.

      UK higher ed especially is a scam. There’s no other way of describing it. You have to pay to work for them and then have to do extra work to pay for the costs of working for them. If there was some justice the UK government would be owing students millions of pounds.

  2. the links at the bottom describing the next page aren’t clickable for me and the numbers don’t highlight after they’ve been clicked so i found navigating the multi-page format hard on a phone, just fyi!

    1. Hey! Thanks for letting me know. I’ve made the ‘next page’ at the bottom clickable now so hopefully this should be better.

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