Tour Talk: What Have I Learned

During the month of February, the Justice4Sanaz campaign has toured a number of Midlands and Northern universities. The tour is still on-going, with talks being organised for March at the University of Leeds, Leeds Beckett University, Oxford University and SOAS. What the tour wanted to accomplish was inform and start a conversation among student activists involved in free education and  anti-racist activisms, by using my campaign to highlight how non-EU students of colour are mistreated within the current British higher education system. What I found during my tour, no matter the university, were the following:

1. Student Officers & Activists STILL Don’t Have a Clue About Postgrad Student Issues

With exception to the talk given at the University of Manchester, a good deal of student activists that I met during the tour seemed to be entirely oblivious to the concerns and problems that postgraduate and PhD students encounter within the neoliberal university. A good percentage of non-EU internationals students who are students of colour, come to the UK for their postgraduate education and have encountered both institutionalised racism, xenophobia, along with finding a lack of services and other impediments that prevent them from succeeding. It seems rather odd and entirely one dimensional that student officers and activists seem to base their understanding of the neoliberal university entirely on their undergraduate experience without a nuanced and informed understanding of how universities operate as a whole. Many times during the tour I highlighted that student union officers that I have had contact with over the years do not have any understanding of postgraduate and PhD concerns. Because of this, horrendous abuses occur within postgraduate and PhD courses that go under the radar.  As a result, student unions are woefully inadequate to deal with postgraduate and PhD student issues, particularly those that affect non-EU international students.

2. #CopsOffCampus, But What About Non-EU Students? 

Apart from the few places that I spoke at, there still is a lack of knowledge about the particular immigration constraints that non-EU international students face. The talk given at the University of Birmingham, there was one member of the audience who was in disbelief that non-EU students from primarily Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries  were required as part of their student visa to register with the police. Furthermore, he could not fathom that universities advertised and enforced this policy. Quite a few of you were utterly shocked about the horrible treatment that I received at the NUS Women’s Campaign Conference last March in Bradford, where NUS employees called the police on me, despite informing them that I had an existing immigration situation that would only be exacerbated by an arrest,  for simply requesting that I be allowed to speak to NUS delegates inside the conference about my campaign in order to engage with others and get support. The odd thing was while the NUS employees decided to handle a perfectly responsible request with hostility and brutality, inside the conference,  NUS Women’s delegates had just passed a motion in support of #CopsOffCampus. As I always maintain, #CopsOffCampus, unless you are international, Muslim, Black or Brown!

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This is what I wrote in the aftermath of my attempted arrest:

‪#‎NUSwomens‬ conference should be ashamed of themselves! I am disabled, with very limited mobility and in constant pain. I came to your shitty conference to get some urgent help. Instead, your thoroughly insititutionalized gatekeepers (2 women organizers) called on the the Bradford Hilton manager to remove me from the venue. Then, these organizers called the police! When the police came, I was told that if I did not leave the venue, that I would be forcibly removed. With my neurological condition, that would have landed me back in hospital for another 2 weeks! #NUSwomens conference is a bloody disgrace. Instead of handling my pleas with dignity and respect, they chose to criminalize my voice. The irony is that the conference passed a motion in support with ‪#‎CopsOffCampus‬, and yet they sat the police on me, doing my own protest inside. The NUS uses and hide behind bureaucracy to stifle and silence my grassroots campaign. If the police had arrested me, I would have been deported. Be ashamed of yourselves!”

It’s been close to a year, and despite my requests for an apology, I have received none from the NUS Women’s Campaign. This is what “solidarity” looks like– especially so if you are a woman of colour and a migrant to this country.

Additionally, during my talks I found a disconnect in the audience’s knowledge of how universities use their power as the front line  for UKBA in silencing non-EU academics and students who challenge their higher education institutions. In the statement signed by 105 academics, activists, and students about the discriminatory policies that have marginalised non-EU students and academics, a point was made about how universities are using immigration status as a carrot stick to silence those who dare speak out against or challenge a university concerning their neoliberal politics and institutional racism (among other issues).

The fact that it took the University of Leeds appeals group almost a year to make a decision about my academic appeals while on a student visa and the Office of Independent Adjudicators for Higher Education an additional 9 months to make their decision– by that time my student visa had expired and I was living in visa-liminal-limbo land, just proves how horrendously difficult it is for us non-EU students and academics to challenge their institutions without the threat of deportation hanging over our heads.

In this age of “War on Terror” rhetoric and policy, despite having an American passport, after living more than ten years in this country, I  can assure you that there is no “special arrangement/relationship” for American students or migrants in the UK, especially Middle Eastern, Muslim American types. Like other non-EU students (Chinese, Russian, Egyptian, Indian and Iranian counterparts, among others), we still have to apply for a student visa and go through the exact same process as anyone else. There are Americans who have been threatened with deportation, case in point. With the rampant xenophobic policies that this Tory government has enacted, no one who is from a country outside the EU is safe, whether as a refugee, asylum seeker, migrant or student!

3. OIAHE– Um, What’s That?

Equally what was even more surprising that among seasoned student officers and activists, many  of you have never heard of the Office of Independent Adjudicators for Higher Education (OIAHE), the body that students can go to if they are not satisfied with a university’s appeal procedure. As I mentioned in the talks given, the OIAHE can only review whether a university has followed their procedures correctly. The OIAHE cannot review academic decisions, although, as in my case, they routinely confuse, intentionally or out of shear incompetence, what are procedural issues as being academic decisions.

A great many of you were surprised to find that in 2012 the OIAHE Annual Report stated that only 4% of cases were found to be ‘justified’ ( their cumbersome lingo for having merit), while 59% of cases were found to be ‘not justified’ (lingo for having no merit). Similarly, in 2013 Annual Report, only 6% of  cases were fond to be ‘justified’ while 55% were found ‘not justified’.

As education law solicitor, Sukhvir Gill has questioned,

“Is it that the vast majority of students complaining to the OIA have meritless complaints? Or is it a relevant factor that a number of students fail to highlight the relevant points in a well-expressed manner, thus allowing the OIA to find their complaint unjustified?”

While student activists are celebrating the recent OIAHE decision concerning the Sussex 5,  let us remember that this is the same organisation, put together more than ten years ago by a Blairite government (the same folks who instituted tuition fees) that squashes more than half of student complaints submitted. The success of the Sussex 5 owes itself to strong campaigning, mainstream media coverage, and support from fellow activists, academics and politicians. The OIAHE knew that a negative decision would call their own disastrous practices into question. I’m sure given the new resolve among student activists at the moment in their quest for free education, the last thing the OIAHE needs on their plate is a full inquiry into why more than a majority of student complaints submitted are summarily dismissed.

This is why the free education movement must demand that the OIAHE be dismantled and a more representative body put forward that actively challenges higher education institutions, not turning a cheek to their bad and utterly negligent behaviour!

4. FOI E-mails Are Shocking & White Women Are Still Victims!

The pièce de résistance of the entire talk and what I have saved for last are the horrid e-mails that were circulated about me by my former supervisor, Helen Kennedy (now a professor at the University of Sheffield– proof that racist white women always have a place in academia), along with the former head of the School of Media and Communication  (formerly the Institute of Communications Studies), David Hesmondhalgh, Former Postgraduate Research Tutor and Committee Member for Leeds UCU, Steven Lax and former PhD co-surpervisor, Stephen Coleman (who also was cautioned by the police for this incident as reported by Leeds Student Resistance).

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I was able to unearth these racist, xenophobic, and ableist e-mails as part of an Freedom of Information request I did in April 2014. Some of these e-mails were published in a Ceasefire Magazine piece about my case. Recently there was story published in the Guardian that found in survey conducted by the Equality Challenge Unit, “More than half of students (54%) with mental health difficulties said they had not received or spoken to anyone about getting help. Most respondents thought they would not get the support they need or would receive unfair treatment.”

It is not surprising that along with the bullying and institutional racism that I faced while at the School of Media and Communication, University of Leeds, disability discrimination figured prominently, in terms of not allowing me time off when I was unwell after suffering from a broken right ankle, and when I fell into deep depression following the withdrawal of my scholarship only 2 weeks before the start of the 2011-2012 academic year.

As for the latter, I promptly notified Steve Lax that I was unwell and needed to get better before I could make any decision about the next direction for my PhD studies. Because I had no money, as my scholarship was taken away and I had no maintenance money to rely upon, I was at the mercy of friends to survive. I recall attending a postgraduate research luncheon on the 5th October 2011, not because I was in the mood to mingle and talk to new PhD students– it was because I knew there would be free food and I was hungry! Surely Helen Kennedy and Steve Lax knew that by taking away my scholarship in such a sudden manner that I would have survival issues to contend with. Instead, the two of them in an e-mail sent on the 5th October 2011 marked, “in confidence”  engage in making fun of my mental state at the time. Steve Lax wrote to Helen Kennedy:

“Apparently Sanaz’s health is in a ‘terrible’ state… She seemed ok at today’s PGR lunch though! Steve.”

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This is unacceptable behaviour and a breach of the proper protocols that those in a supervisory/pastoral care role should be properly punished for. However, because the individuals perpetuating this vile and disgusting behaviour are two academics who are deemed to be beyond reproach, the system of ableism, discrimination and bullying continues with no bounds. I have never received an apology as a result of the disgusting comments found in these e-mails. If anything, Helen Kennedy has constantly defended herself by stating most recently in a thread on A0IR list serve on the 30th January 2015:

“Since a decision not to renew Sanaz’s PhD scholarship several years ago, she has pursued a campaign against me and my former colleagues at Leeds in which she accuses us of racism and bullying, amongst other things. There are no grounds whatsoever for these allegations. The quote she originally cited, taken out of context & not quoted in full, is from an email sent in sympathy to a colleague who had just experienced her campaign tactic of waiting for us to leave our workplace, pointing a video camera at us and shouting things like ‘you’re a bully’. The quote is emotional – it conveys my upset and anger at having to live with these unfounded accusations, and my desire for a difficult situation to come to an end. But I do not believe that it is evidence of racism. Note that of years of emails which were accessed, this is the only quote offered as ‘evidence’, and it was written years after Sanaz alleges that the problems started.”

Yes folks, Helen Kennedy, a white woman academic is the real victim here! She, like all other white women “victims” are  entitled to feel pain and hurt after being confronted about their racist ways. And as always, it is me, a woman of colour who is constructed as being violent or the bully, because white women can never be those very things. When ever I read this message, I am reminded of this:

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In conclusion…

I didn’t go on a tour of universities to ask for your pity– I went in order to educate those within student government an the burgeoning free education movement about the particular concerns of postgraduate, BME and non-EU international students that often are under-reported or ignored altogether. The question is now, what will you do to help propel Justice4Sanaz even further? If your student union hasn’t passed a motion of solidarity with the campaign, now is the time to do so. You can also support Justice4Sanaz campaign by sending donations that will be used to put together a fresh application to the Home Office to help keep me in the country legally while my legal team applies for a breach of contracts case against the University of Leeds in addition to helping with day-to-day living costs. Together, I hope to get real justice, not only for myself, but for the many non-EU, Black and Brown students who are continually marginalised within the British neoliberal and racist university system.

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About justice4sanaz

For 3 years, Sanaz Raji, a non-EU international student from the United States, has waged a fearless and brave fight against institutional aggression, bullying, and racism from the School of Media and Communication (formerly the Institution of Communications Studies) University of Leeds. The School of Media and Communication took away Sanaz's scholarship in August 2011, only 2 weeks before the start of her third year into her PhD studies. The School of Media and Communication breached their own procedures and rules concerning evaluating student progress. By taking away Sanaz's scholarship, the School of Media and Communication prevented her from continuing her studies in addition to having a decent standard of living with food and shelter that all students expect as a human right. In waging her battle for equal rights for non-EU international students, Sanaz was evicted from her university accommodation in May 2014, threatened with an ASBO (anti-social behavior order) and now fighting against deportation. All non-EU international students should have the right to challenge their universities for their failings without the threat of harassment or deportation. Justice4Sanaz is a movement to redress the failure of the student movement to discuss the myriad of ways that non-EU students, especially those who are people of color, are silenced, bullied and threatened within the neoliberal British university system.
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