Life membership

“Is it real, or is it Zoom?” by Mark Palfreyman

The attempted student ban enacted by the Trump administration was wrong. Denying students their university places because they were not physically present misunderstood so much of what university membership really embodies.

On July 6th, the Trump administration announced that students attending online-only courses in the USA would have their visas withdrawn and could face deportation unless they switched to an institution offering in-person courses.

Specifically, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) declared that:
Nonimmigrant F-1 and M-1 students attending schools operating entirely online may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States. The US Department of State will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester nor will US Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the United States. Active Students currently in the United States enrolled in such programs must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status. If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings.”

The news broke on the same day that Harvard announced its courses would be online-only for the start of the new academic year, a move that mirrors and continues arrangements already in place at most campuses for the summer semester.

International students in the US with academic visas are not usually allowed to take online-only courses, so the ban was essentially extending that prohibition to universities temporarily offering online-only courses because of the pandemic.

There are obvious things that can, and have, been said about the visas move – it was mean, it was petty, it was an affront to the more than one million students involved in various undergraduate and postgraduate programs in the USA, it may well have been racist (48% of such students are Chinese, 26% are Indian), and it was economically short-sighted (international students are reckoned to contribute more than 40 billion dollars to the US economy – and the money paid by international students subsidises domestic ones).

These objections are unlikely to have concerned the architects of the measures – a recurring theme of contemporary right-wing populism in Western countries is the willingness to inflict economic self-harm in pursuit of national “greatness”, “sovereignty”, or “control”. Creating a hostile and unwelcoming environment towards immigrants is part of serving the will of “the people” a.k.a. ‘the majority” a.k.a. “the people who voted for the present government in the last election”.

Nobody would question that the universities would prefer to run in-person courses if possible. It is doubtful that any student would, given a free choice, opt for an online course over an in-person one. Online teaching is suboptimal, it is difficult for staff and students alike, and it’s not as good as in-person interaction – but it’s still something.

It is also, however, a proactive move that protects both staff – many of whom are not exactly spring chickens and therefore in a high risk bracket – and students alike from the consequences of rampant coronavirus spread, while still maintaining an academic programme of sorts.

At the very least, it’s better than nothing – which is why the concept of online universities and online courses is genuinely helpful for developing countries where access to world-class teaching talent may be harder to obtain. (And don’t underestimate the empowering effect of proximity – simply receiving a direct lecture from a heavyweight in a particular field creates a powerful sense of inclusion under the right circumstances.)

But the students affected by the Trump administration’s order didn’t apply to do an online course at an online university – they applied to join an actual physical university, and until the pandemic, they have been or would have been there in person. They had been accepted onto the courses, they had passed the admissions requirements, and they had enrolled.

By treating those students as if they were doing an online course out of free choice, the Trump administration’s move implicitly denied that the students had membership of the physical universities to which they belong.

This attempt to change the status of students represented a profound misunderstanding – a betrayal – of what university membership means.

University membership is for life. A university’s students are its students for life. They will, by consequence of the courses they study and through contact with the teachers they have, be indirectly tutored to embody the ethos and express the values that that institution upholds. Wherever they go and whatever they achieve in life, they will represent that institution, ambassadors for it by virtue of being products of it. This same sentiment, this sense of belonging, is the basis of alumni networks the world over – a communion that is enthusiastically tapped by the universities themselves for endowments.

And universities don’t just offer education – they also offer the opportunity to join a community of peers. Teaching quality can be surprisingly variable even at elite institutions like Harvard or Cambridge, but what is constant is the peer group environment. Being a student is about expressing and exploring a variety of opinions and standpoints with one’s peers, and evolving a consensus on values and priorities. That effect will naturally be lessened by resorting to online tools, but not lost – and especially when so much modern software is geared to encouraging and enhancing connections and interactivity.

This sense of belonging and potential is one reason why people are so proud at being admitted to specific institutions, because it immediately acknowledges membership in a larger family of current and former students who probably represent exactly the kind of person that particular student hopes to be. Simply acquiring university membership in and of itself can represent a generational ambition for a family. University membership, what it really represents, has almost nothing to do with where you are right now, and especially right now in SARS-Cov2-stricken America.

The USA has always been a magnet for overseas talent, and the strength of its teaching institutions one of the beacons of its soft power. Those institutions educate international students, impart familiarity with American values, acquaintance with American culture, and instil a connection with the concept of the USA itself. If those same students elect to stay it boosts American productivity (while constituting a brain drain for their home countries), if they leave it establishes pockets of American experience wherever they settle. But the students need to be in the USA to acquire all those things.

The attack on international students failed to see and understand all of these points, and like most of the cruel and small-minded tactics employed over last four years, it would have caused a further diminution in America’s soft power. In fact, it may still.

To deny that people studying somewhere actually belong there is a misrepresentation of everything that universities stand for. University membership is life membership, and life is something we should be celebrating right now.

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