Tier 4 students forced to cross UCU strike picket lines due to visa restrictions

In the midst of ongoing strike action organised by the Universities and College Union (UCU), one of the largest unions for university staff in the country, it has come to light that universities are encouraging foreign students to cross the picket line or risk their visa status. A number of universities have sent emails to those studying under Tier 4 student visas, telling them that they must attend their classes if staff are not participating in strike action. 

All classes that are officially cancelled due to industrial action however should be considered authorised absences and will not be reported by the university, according to UCU’s official guidance

The Home Office gives Tier 4 students certain conditions to retain their visa while studying in the UK, one of which being attendance. Students under a Tier 4 visa must maintain a 80% attendance rate or risk having their visa revoked. Universities are required to report students that drop below that threshold to the Home Office. 

An email sent by a King’s College London department and publicised on social media said, “If a lecture/seminar is cancelled due to the strike this will be counted as a cancelled session’ and it will not affect your Tier 4 visa attendance.

“For all other lectures/seminars you must attend. We know that information has been given on the FAQ about students who might not want to cross the picket line can just email the department but this advice does NOT apply to Tier 4 visa students. If you decide not to cross the picket line then you will be recorded as ‘absent’.” 

A subsequent email sent stated that non-attendance was “not acceptable” and that they “expect [students] to attend all those classes as usual.” 

Nickolas Tang, a Tier 4 student and an alumnus of King’s College London, said, “It is a ridiculous measure that suppresses dissent on campus. It prevents Tier 4 students who support their striking lecturers from standing in solidarity with them on the pickets. Lecturers are taking action to fight against increasing precarisation of work in higher education and to ensure staff can work with stability and fair pay so that they can deliver the best education for students, and Tier 4 students, who are paying exorbitant fees only to see them end up in the pockets of senior management, have all the right reasons to support the lecturers. This policy looks alarmingly like a move to prevent the student movement and worker movement from connecting with each other on campus.”

Many students have used Twitter to publicise their concern and anger towards universities for these stringent policies, calling them “disgusting” and “coercive”. 

Dr. James Smith, an academic based at Royal Holloway, University of London told London Student, “The decisions our students make about how they respond to industrial action are part of their learning to be citizens. Our Tier 4 students are part of our communities and they should be free to do the same.”

An email sent by the University of Liverpool echoed other universities’, stating that “it is unlawful for students to join pickets,” and that “any international students who choose not to cross picket lines to attend teaching sessions risk jeopardising their visa.”

Similarly, UCL’s emails to students state that if “teaching has not been affected by industrial action, it is expected that students will attend.” 

A UCL spokesperson said: “Our official advice is clear that students will not be penalised under UCL’s attendance policy if they chose to cross a picket line or miss classes cancelled due to the industrial action. Any suggestion to the contrary Is categorically untrue.” 

UCL also pointed out to London Student that UCL’s website provides relevant answers to these questions, stating:

“We would expect all students to attend classes where they are running; however, we will not penalise you under UCL’s attendance policy. We have also made clear, including for students on a Learning Agreement, that if they choose not to cross a picket line, then this will not count against them. If you are a student on a Tier 4 visa you will not be penalised if you are unable to attend classes that have been cancelled due to the strike action. We will assume that you are engaged with your studies in other ways if your classes are not running.”

The UCU strikes have been in effect since 20 February and will continue until 13 March. This is the third large-scale strike in the last three years, with rumours that more are coming if negotiations do not go well. Members of the union are striking due to concerns over the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) for staff pensions as well as universities’ “failure to make significant improvements to pay, equality, casualisation and workloads.” 

King’s College London and University of Liverpool did not return requests of comment at the time of publication.

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