A survey commissioned by the Home Office asking students to rate their experience of studying alongside international students has been withdrawn after academic staff accused the government of stoking xenophobia.
The questionnaire asked students to rate their views on international students, with the option to say that their overseas counterparts had had an "entirely negative impact" on their university experience.
The survey was carried out by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), which was commissioned by the Home Office to assess the effects of international students in the UK.
The questions asked students to rate the impact international students had had on their academic experience, their social life, and their university experience overall, and asked whether they had any friends who were international students and would keep in touch with students from overseas after graduation.
A Home Office spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that the survey had been sent out to every higher education institution, with a request to pass the details on to students.
Professor Jane Callaghan, an academic at the University of Stirling, called the exercise "a thinly veiled exercise in generating xenophobic attitudes".
She told BuzzFeed News: "I just thought it was spectacularly offensive – it was either deliberately offensive, or ill-contrived and poorly devised.
"International students are incredibly valuable to us; they bring so much to our universities," she said, adding that having students from across the world on campus enhanced the university experience for staff and students alike.
"And they've tried to suggest that international students were some kind of homogenous category, they've tried to suggest some kind of 'otherness'."
"I'm concerned about the impact on students I work with, and other international students," she added. "Even since the changes to visas in 2010, international students have felt increasingly unwelcome here, and I don't want my students feeling that way."
Romanian PhD student Alexandra Bulat has attended three UK universities. She is currently studying at University College London, having graduated with a BA from the University of Sussex, and with an MPhil from the University of Cambridge.
"Throughout these years as a student, I have greatly enjoyed and benefited from the international teaching and research environments in our universities," she said. "I came across the MAC survey aimed to assess the 'impact of international students' and observed that, while it was aimed at students, anyone with a link could complete it – multiple times, either on different devices or browsers, or in incognito mode. There was no way to verify the student status of the respondents and this made the results unfit for purpose and consequently unfit to inform policy."
Bulat said the survey raised questions not only for international students, but also for anyone who comes into contact with the Home Office. "How can the 3.6 million EU citizens in the UK trust the Home Office with a high-tech solution on their registration process post-Brexit if the Home Office cannot manage to produce a good online survey?" she said.
"Any of my second-year politics students leaning methods at UCL could have designed a better survey," she added. "Perhaps the MAC should consider employing one of these 'international students' for their future surveys."
A Migration Advisory Committee spokesperson said: "The Migration Advisory Committee remains clear that the survey was not designed to be discriminatory and was simply an attempt to ask students for their experiences as part of the MAC’s commission to assess the impact of international students in the UK.
"Following online commentary it has become apparent to us that we will be unable to use the responses to the survey to draw any conclusions. We have therefore taken the decision to withdraw the survey.
"The survey had the potential to show a very positive view of international students in the UK but cannot now be used to add to our evidence base."
Hannah Al-Othman is a political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Hannah Al-Othman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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