Less than six months after I finished my undergraduate degree, I was ready to be back in school. I always knew that I wanted to work towards my PhD in literature, to contribute to higher education because knowledge and the pursuit of knowledge is what makes us human, and it is in reflections cast by literature that we truly start to understand the self. But graduate studies are a very large time and financial commitment. They are not meant to be undertaken unless one is very, very sure. And when I finished my Bachelor’s at UConn I was still searching for myself, still a little unsure of whether I’d rather be in academia or publishing. So I went back home, back to the old jobs I had teaching rock climbing and working at a specialty running store, and soon after found a job with an audiobook publisher local to me. By the time I was ready to apply to programs, I knew more than anything that what I wanted was not only an education, but the opportunity to look at my academic culture from the outside, to see what I could learn when I was no longer on even footing in a system I knew how to maneuver. So I set my cap at English and European universities, and threw a Scottish one on the list on a whim based on both a suggestion from a trusted professor and the kinds of inside jokes that only happen when you find yourself audio-proofing Highlander romances for eight or more hours a day. Before a year was out I was planning to immigrate to Scotland, not sure what I would find on the other side, terrified of what I had decided to do, and excited to find out what sort of new paths might wait on the other side of my Master’s.
The moment I went to my first introductory seminar, I knew that being in Edinburgh, at that time, studying Literature and Society, was exactly where I was meant to be. For the first time, there was a weight off of my shoulders; I was living no one’s dreams or expectations except for my own. And everywhere I went in Edinburgh, the people felt like home. I found kindness, openness, a willingness to help and to share the city, to bring people into the sprawling village until they felt like Edinburgh was theirs, too, to keep, not just to visit. There is a promise on the Statue of Liberty on Staten Island: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore./Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” I’m ashamed to say I didn’t know what that looked like until I lived in Edinburgh, not really. I didn’t know what that standard of welcome was until I saw that most of my favorite coffee shops participated in providing “pending” meals and coffees, until I volunteered with youth programs in places where 80 languages were spoken across the participating families, yet every one of them felt part of that community – and I come from a town that lives and breathes volunteerism. What I found, as a Connecticut Yankee about a mile up the Royal Mile from (King) Arthur’s Seat, was a challenge I hadn’t known before, which thrilled me, molded me, and helped to set me more surely on the path towards a PhD – also in the UK – that I am walking now.
While I wouldn’t trade my year at the University of Edinburgh for anything, I could have done without the turmoil and bureaucracy of the visa process. When I applied for my Tier 4 Student Visa in 2013, amidst the US budget turmoil that delayed the disbursement of student loans and therefore my ability to apply on time, I had to pay $492 for the visa, as well as a $150 priority processing fee. Including the fees associated with the biometric tests and mailing documents, I paid approximately $700 total for my visa. The process was expensive, time consuming, confusing, and, with few easy options for help compounded by a time difference and limited operating hours, it felt like a miracle had happened when I finally saw that page in my passport that would let me stay in Scotland for my degree. Luckily, my school had a dedicated office to help international students and whatever they couldn’t answer could be answered by a quick email to UK Visas and Immigration. For someone trying to coordinate not just a visit, but a move, to a country five time zones away to a city they had never before visited, that resource became invaluable.
However, as I look forward to potentially repeating this process for my PhD, the circumstances have changed. On May 30, 2017 an update on www.gov.uk announced that UK Visas and Immigration would be changing how it handles customer service inquiries. As of June 1, 2017 these would be directed through a commercial partner, Sitel UK. The sneaky little catch – if you need customer service help from outside the UK, it is going to cost you. According to the announcement, this is being done to “reduce costs and ensure those who benefit directly from the UK immigration system make an appropriate contribution.” It goes on to say that the main changes to the system for those trying to contact the agency from outside of the UK will be changes to all phone numbers and opening hours, reducing the number of languages services are offered in to eight, including English, and a 5.48 pound (approximately $7**) charge to contact UK Visas and Immigration by email. The announcement does specify that “the charge includes the first email enquiry you send and any follow-up emails to and from the contact centre relating to the same enquiry”. It also specifies that there will be no change in services to those who contact the agency from within the UK. While there was always a fee associated with calling UK Visas and Immigration, up until this point emailing for help was free. When dealing with any form of foreign bureaucracy, it might be expected that help would be needed and the logistics might become complicated. But when that help will cost you, the process becomes infinitely harder.
Despite the old process having been relatively straightforward for me as a low-risk immigrant, the US government hiccups in 2013 meant that there were a lot questions that had to be answered by Visas and Immigration directly. Going back through my archived email alone, and depending on how “same enquiry” could be determined or defined, I could have been billed at minimum ten times for help navigating the process, an additional $70, or more, depending of course not only on who decides how to count inquiries but whether or not my debit or credit card is charged in my local currency or in pounds, and what the associated conversion and processing fees might be.
Looking forward, if certain factors and the universe all align I will be heading back to the UK for my PhD, and I will be applying for a Tier 4 Student Visa again later this year. When I left Edinburgh, the costs associated with the visa for the PhD seemed daunting enough – never mind the full financial liability and lack of funding which forced me to give up a place in a PhD program in 2016 already – but at least comprehensive help was only an email away. Going back to the same websites I used four years ago to determine my visa fees and related costs leaves me with a less straightforward process, more questions, and far higher costs for a longer duration of time. Depending on which government site I look at, I could be charged either 335 pounds ($432**) or $449. The actual cost of the new-since-I-last-applied health care surcharge are also unclear – the general statement lists them as 150 ($194**) to 200 ($258**) pounds per year, but an interactive calculator gives me a liability of 225 pounds ($290**) per year or possibly 525 pounds ($676**) total.
Additionally, the renewal or extension fees can be 457 pounds ($589**), but it is not clear whether or not I would have to do this each year, and how and if the health care surcharge is factored into this value. For the most nominal contextualization of these costs, according to www.travel.state.gov, a UK student studying in the USA on an F1 Student Visa would pay a $160 (125 pound) application fee, but no issuance fee. The confusion of these things alone is frustrating, and leaves you feeling shaken like Theresa May’s often-invoked “magical money tree.” But when you are meant to be able to fund all three years of the degree – at the highest rates – up front and then not work during this time, this makes it impossible to actually budget the full financial liability you need to account for to finish the forms needed to have a higher education institution confirm your place and send you the documents needed to apply for the elusive, expensive, deliberately almost unattainable visa at all. While admittedly, when dealing with these values any additional costs in $7 increments are a drop in the bucket, it is easy to see how this can easily pile onto the total costs for someone. (**All numbers marked by asterisks are based on the conversion calculations at the time of writing, and are also rounded up to the next whole dollar or pound value because, let’s be honest, it’s never less than expected.)
Beyond the financial burdens already associated with trying to take advantage of a continually globalizing (despite some people’s best efforts to deny or slow this process) world, policies such as these are a form of implicit discrimination – whether this is intended overtly or is just a fringe benefit to someone along the way. Money is money and math is math, and supposedly this is supposed to be reason enough to implement policies such as these, to scrape every penny from where it might be provided. It is for the good of the people, of the nation. But when governments try to wrap their social mores into math, it is never because of beneficence, it is because they want people to respond to the math and their fears about money – and ignore the couched social message. When we focus in on “ensure those who benefit directly from the UK immigration system make an appropriate contribution,” the part of the explanation that is meant to be softened and masked by the phrase “reduce costs,” the implications have little to do with finances. This becomes – and perhaps always was – about making sure that those who would come to the UK for any length of time will have a guaranteed value-added impact on the country, where value is taken literally as a person’s finances and numerically quantifiable contributions, rather than qualitative impact to a society. It frames those who would come to a new country to enrich their lives through participation in a new society – for whatever their reasons might be – as potential takers, as leeches, as a drain on the current social fabric.
This is a method of reasoning that preys upon people’s most racist and classist fears, framing the person who is “other” as “less than”. Globally, we have seen for the past two years exactly where this kind of rhetoric leads. The sad part? This is not coming from some far right nationalist fringe afraid of anyone who’s genealogy can’t be traced back a minimum of seven generations locally. This is coming from a government agency, in language as plain as bureaucracy ever is, which should and does have the quantifiable figures as to what immigrants add to the financial and social fabric of the country. And granted, I can speak to little outside of my experience as an immigrant student, but it is also no secret that in its push to assay immigration fears and, again, allegedly “curb costs,” the “international student,” and the “immigrant” in general, have been demonized as a drain on UK society – despite the fact that in addition to the high visa fees, and the now-additional healthcare supplement, we pay the highest educational rates, are engaged in our university and local communities, have had the transitional education to work visa program scrapped, and are just short of being openly threatened with deportation and further consequences if we do not leave the country fast enough at the end of our visa period.
The cuts to student visas are executed not only on financial grounds but through “credibility” interviews. Of course, this is nothing new, and access to a certain amount of finances is necessary to be considered for the visa. But the scrutiny of credibility interviews aside, the financial burden is enough to disqualify anyone who, in the case of a Tier 4 Student Visa, cannot prove access to 1015 to 1265 pounds ($1307** to $1629**) per month for the total duration of their stay for living expenses, plus their course fees, according to the most recent documentation for the Home Office’s Policy Guidance on Tier 4 of the Points Based System. The last time I applied for a visa for a one year masters, this meant that I had to have $40,000 on hand; it is expected, too, that a student will not work during the degree. While there is a certain practical side to making sure that people can afford their life choices, it also has to be recognized that this financial requirement functions in the same way that Jim Crow laws were and current voter ID laws are meant to work in the United States. It is a social as well as financial hurdle meant to preserve access for the “right” people, and to keep the “wrong” people out. When we really stop to think, locally, nationally, globally, about who this will affect most, we can start to take a look at the kinds of implicit, systematic discrimination is in effect here – intentionally or unintentionally, consciously or subconsciously.
This is insular, isolationist thinking and policy-making hiding behind a mask of better financial management. This is about reducing access, weeding out those who won’t be able to watch a seemingly nominal fee add up, weeding out those who don’t speak the one of now only eight service languages including English to have their questions answered. And it is not people like me who are going to lose. I have not only the inherent privilege associated with my nationality, socio-economic standing, education, the fact that I am considered a “safe” minority or “low-risk migrant,” and being a native-English speaker, but also people who can advocate on my behalf within the UK should I need it. To me, this is an annoyance, one more middle finger shot in my direction alongside the new visa fees, the insinuations that students come to the UK to somehow take advantage of the state, and the implication of “pay the maximum amount for your education and then get out of our country” that comes with it. I have the privilege to take all of these things in stride, to put what I will gain from a program over what it might cost me, and know that if this doesn’t work, I can walk away and build myself another chance to chase my dreams and my future somewhere else. I have many contingency plans and the people to support me through them.
But a lot of people – and I would go on to say it is the vast majority of those who wish to move – do not have that option; their emigration to another country is their moonshot – they want a certain life, to join a society, to give to a people and a nation that has inspired them to craft a new life tied to that national identity for themselves. They can’t afford to try a second time; they don’t have the resources to deal with ever-mounting hurdles because it is an easy excuse to generate revenue by telling those who wish to join your country that they must be able to pay for the privilege. That is no way to build a society in such a way that will attract the brightest minds, or the hearts with the most integrity, or the most generous souls, or whatever the rhetoric du jour of what makes the “right” kind of immigrant might be. Access and means rarely have anything to do with the character of a person, and it is people of character who truly build a society. I come from the land of pay for your rights, pay for your basic needs – if you can’t do it you simply didn’t work hard enough to deserve the things that you want. The UK in this moment has a 50+ year blue-print of what this chain of thinking leads to. They just have to look at the United States, and ask themselves if this is the path they want to walk, if the implications that run tandem to adding additional fees to an already prohibitive application are tied to the values of the nation they wish to build. Yes, they will cut costs and generate a degree of revenue, and yes, people will find a way to pay. People always do what they have to do. But will the potential financial gains be worth the human cost?
Michelle Anya Anjirbag wears a lot of hats including academic, local journalist, facilitator, book reviewer, and shopgirl. Her essays have popped up so far at GOOD and Fourth & Sycamore, and one time she accidentally found herself on a radio show. You can find her at manjirbag.wordpress.com, on Twitter: @anjirbaguette and Instagram: @michelle_anya.