On Tuesday I attended a talk by Dr. Julian Beckton on issues surrounding student attendance – kicking off a new series of ‘Thinking Aloud’ seminars. Julian raised a number of questions that any educator – and any university – should be asking: what is the significance of the concept of student ‘attendance’ in the university? Does it have any pedagogical value? What are the arguments linking such practices with governmentality or pastoral care or both? What are its politics; what political and economic agendas is it ever embedded within? What is the relationship (or not) between knowing one’s students, ‘keeping attendance’ and monitoring and controlling individuals and groups of people on the basis of their origin of birth or migration status?  Do the virtualisation and deterritorialisation of knowledge and communication require us to reconceptualise the idea and politics of ‘attendance’ itself? And is there any research grounding any of the principles, practices and policies of student attendance now in operation within UK universities?

The immediate context for the talk was the revocation of London Metropolitan University’s ‘highly trusted sponsor status’ in August of this year (a move which the university is presently contesting).

Regulations for monitoring international students in higher education institutions within the UK were introduced in 2009 and strengthened in 2011. Pressure groups, issuing reports about the potential damages to students and the educational system on the whole, called for the points-based immigration system to be reformed or scrapped in 2010.

It also bears remembering that such measures are not unique to the UK; in 2003, the United States government allocated $36.8m to strengthen its systems for monitoring foreign students (through the Patriot Act of 2001). Although we yet face nothing like the militarisation of schools and universities such as has been seen in the US in recent decades, there are resonances that should not be neglected.

The present scenario in the UK is bizarre in the way that neoliberal contradictions are: a government that is bent on commodifying and marketising knowledge and education simultaneously forces universities to report students’ activities to the state in order to, according to its own accounts, regulate population. In effect, the state demands that academics and administrators act as proxy border agents in exchange for state permission to educate students ordinarily residing outside of the EU. In the wake of the audit of London Metropolitan’s compliance with these regulations, universities are now falling over themselves to comply more and harder so as not to also be branded ‘untrustworthy’ and stripped of their financial and educational power. The work of administrators shifts towards that of the police, while it dawns on even the most apolitical of teachers that the monitoring practices are uncomfortable and discriminatory.

Julian pointed to some of the deeper political agendas that play into such decisions, such as cross-party discourses which associate certain forms of immigration with national crisis (to ‘British jobs’, ‘national cohesion’, etc.). He also drew attention to the way that many UK universities have adopted the discriminatory language of the state’s ‘tiered’ visa system, with people who can demonstrate that they are ‘high-value’ and ‘exceptionally talented’ being granted ‘Tier 1’ visas, and with the phantom scheme for unskilled workers (‘Tier 3) suspended now indefinitely. Students coming from outside the EU can apply to become ‘Tier 4’ migrants. Highly valued for their tuition fees, perhaps, but instructed not to stay beyond graduation.

Julian gave an excellent mapping of the potential pros and cons of taking attendance in classes, on the one hand, and of monitoring student presence, on the other. As these can be found on his slides, there is no need to reiterate them; I have discovered that debates around the use of technology for keeping attendance, and about the differences between ‘unobtrusive monitoring’, student self-reporting and the keeping of rosters, have long been in process. I will thus draw attention to some additional questions that emerged from the talk, and which must be considered before discussion of any technical or administrative judgements can effectively take be made.

Above all, what is happening within and through universities which makes it possible and necessary for us to be having this conversation at all? Why is the state, particularly the arm which deals with territory and population, now invited onto campuses with no acknowledgement of the political and economic history of such university–state relations? How is it that suggestions for monitoring students’ movements on campus – in and out of classes and buildings, or even more intimately – can be presented as legitimate alternatives to either taking attendance or forming relationships with our students? In 2006, the then-president of the NUS remarked that ‘it is fair to suggest that a large proportion of students may be dropping out due to building levels of debt. Rather than treating these students like criminals, we believe there are better ways to address the problem.’ And yet, we seem to be moving ever further towards the expanded use of an electronic monitoring device called ‘Uni-Nanny’. Yes, really.

What does this do to people? What sorts of relations to oneself, one’s teachers, one’s students, one’s university, one’s discipline, one’s education, one’s ethical and political principles; to our relations with one another, do these sorts of monitoring and surveillance practices cultivate? How can they cultivate anything other than collective distrust, bureaucratisation, anxiety, self-surveillance and fear? How can they not have the effect of legitimising repressive state influence in and control over university affairs, the geopolitical and racist othering of certain groups and privileging of others, and economic and social discrimination? How does it not compromise professional autonomy and spaces for critical pedagogy and collaborative educational relationships? What consequences could it have in universities where some academics pride themselves on working to democratise education by ‘co-producing’ knowledge and experience with students?

As was aptly commented in the talk, the message is that UK universities are a ‘dangerous playground’ for international students – who, it was noted by seminar attendees, may well seek more liberal and hospitable institutions elsewhere. But these developments are also indicators of wider dangers now proliferating in our social institutions and everyday lives.  As was pointed out in the post-seminar discussion, it is therefore essential to decouple questions about the pedagogical value of keeping or counting attendance from questions about the political injunction to monitor people’s whereabouts for the purposes of producing the borders of the state, on the other. At the moment, within the discursive regime which has combined them, these different practices elide into one another with ease, and it seems natural to suggest that policing people’s movements and identities is simply a new form of taking attendance, or another layer of institutional bureaucracy. And while we can discuss whether students would benefit from the first, it is vital that academics and students alike refuse to agree that the second is in any way legitimate or acceptable.

As argued by Goldsmiths Migration Solidarity, ‘if the border is a social relation and not a thing, then we must pay attention to the ways in which we are reproducing, enabling and enforcing that border in our day-to-day lives’. Institution-wide non-compliance is possible, but difficult to maintain if it is isolated to either individuals within institutions – particularly the most vulnerable, such as administrators and international students themselves – or to individual institutions in competition with others.

In 2009, the University of Lincoln Academic Board approved a policy on Academic Freedom, drafted by the University Ethics Committee. It states that:

‘The University asserts its freedom to shape its own educational purpose and to determine for itself who may teach, what is taught, how it should be taught, and who may be admitted to study what is taught. This freedom is to be exercised without external interference from social or cultural expectations, public opinion, or public and state bodies. The University presumes every individual member of staff has the right to develop and express ideas openly and to pursue all lines of enquiry as suggested by their studies. This freedom is to be exercised without internal interference from others’ expectations, opinion or institutional regulations, policies and procedures.’

In 2009, just as the UKBA was designing its new interventions into university affairs, the University asserted its freedom to shape not only its own purpose, curriculum and pedagogy, but also ‘who may be admitted to study what is taught’. Why? Because the university is an institution where learning, the creation of knowledge, social and political critique, and professional and ethical judgement can be cultivated within and defended by society.
The erosion of of these principles and freedoms by forces of state and economic power, or in more extreme cases their revocation or replacement, has never led to anything progressive.  Of course, we should have no illusions about the intimate relationships that already flourish, and which are in fact being furiously cultivated, between universities, the military, industry and corporate business. Critiques of the monitoring of students are not about maintaining some sort of mythical intellectual or political purity, although they might be about refusing to weave another thread through them.

But it must be understood that they are also not simply about taking attendance.

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  1. Pingback: Education without borders | Venturing beyond

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