I work at Edinburgh University, which has recently acceded to a formal call from its Students' Association (EUSA) for the renaming of the David Hume Tower, the university's most prominent blot on the city's skyline. The request is on the grounds that the Enlightenment philosopher, after whom the building is named, held 'extremely problematic and incredibly harmful' beliefs regarding 'the inferiority of non-white peoples'.
According to EUSA, the renaming of the building will serve to indicate that the university is beginning to 'acknowledge its own historic complicity in racial injustice'. 'These actions,' the statement continues, 'are a necessary first step in the fight against institutionalised racism and discrimination in Edinburgh'.
In acceding to EUSA's request, the university confirms that its interim decision to rename the building 'has been taken because of the sensitivities around asking students to use a building named after the 18th-century philosopher whose comments on matters of race, though not uncommon at the time, rightly cause distress today'.
My office is in the David Hume Tower, and although I am as concerned as EUSA and the university about institutional racism and discrimination in the university, the city of Edinburgh, and beyond, I'd suggest that there are areas in which a first step in the university's fight against these evils is more urgent.
Every 30 days or so, I receive an email which exhorts me to record the details of all 'engagements' that I have had with my Tier 4 research students. A Tier 4 student, under current UK immigration regulations, is a non-EU national who requires a visa in order to study in the UK. The requirement for universities to record and report on the movements of students in this category goes back to Theresa May's 2014 Immigration Act, which formalised the regime now known as the 'Hostile Environment' and which, for the first time, gave landlords, employers, healthcare professionals and educators a role in the policing of UK Government immigration policy.
The University of Edinburgh complies with this policy by recording in an online database 'engagements' with all of its students – undergraduate and postgraduate, UK, EU, and non-EU. In this way, the university's chosen method for gathering the data to be submitted to UK immigration authorities is not formally or legally discriminatory. Nonetheless, the policy of recording engagements in this way is a specific response to requirements introduced in the 2014 Immigration Act; reminders to record engagements are issued separately for Tier 4 and non-Tier 4 students; and only those data that concern the movements of Tier 4 students are liable to be passed on to the UK immigration authorities.
The University of Edinburgh, like all UK education establishments permitted to recruit non-EU students, is thus clearly required to discriminate between Tier 4 visa and other students in its reports to UK Government agencies.
By the same token, it is unlikely that the 2014 legislation which requires universities (like landlords, employers, healthcare professionals, etc) to carry out such checks will be proved in the courts to be discriminatory in a strictly legal sense. At present, these requirements apply formally to all non-EU nationals. After the end of the Brexit transition period in December 2020, they will no doubt apply to all non-UK nationals.
Yet it is these very requirements, the 'rotten core' of the Hostile Environment immigration policy castigated by the UN's Special Rapporteur, that facilitated the Windrush scandal. Though Wendy Williams' March 2020 report on that disgraceful episode in recent UK history was restrained and circumspect in its language, and she refrained from making 'a definitive finding of institutional racism' within the Home Office, she nonetheless expressed 'serious concerns that these failings demonstrate an institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness towards the issue of race and the history of the Windrush generation within the department, which are consistent with some elements of the definition of institutional racism'. More recently, the Institute for Public Policy Research has concluded that the Hostile Environment policy, though it has failed in its main stated objectives, has contributed to a rise in racism.
This policy was formulated at a time when the rise of UKIP and other xenophobic tendencies was at its height and conceived as a means of appeasing currents of racist and xenophobic opinion which threatened the dominance of the UK Conservative Party. Though hostility to immigration has long loomed large in UK social attitudes, the Hostile Environment policy reflects a shift towards pandering to such sentiments rather than striving to counteract and overcome them. This has enabled the Conservative Party to see off UKIP and similar threats, but at the cost of condoning the xenophobic impulses that led to Brexit and of effecting a shift to the right in British politics that is reflected not only in Ed Milliband's 2015 souvenir mugs pledging 'Controls on Immigration', but also in the coded language of current Labour politicians regarding the 'legitimate concerns' of their constituents.
One of the most worrying aspects of the rightward shift that the Hostile Environment policy represents is precisely the way that the institutional racism of state institutions is deliberately embedded in other sectors of society, such as housing, healthcare and education.
Reluctantly, I comply with requests to report on the movements of my Tier 4 students. I am told that I have no choice but to do so. And so I am complicit in institutional racism. It is bad enough that academics, regardless of any conscientious moral and political objections, should be forced into this role, but one might think that in the grand scheme of the many injustices and inequalities that afflict British society, the conscience of academics does not matter all that much. But the pernicious effect of the Hostile Environment policy is precisely that it implicates so many individuals and institutions in such a systematic way. This makes all of us complicit in the Hostile Environment's many negative, and in some cases utterly tragic, effects.
While I personally have not illegitimately denied anyone the right to work, to housing, or to healthcare, my enforced complicity in treating foreign students as a distinct category subject to state-mandated control is part of a set of mechanisms designed to appeal to the very same people who have physically attacked and verbally abused foreign or ethnic minority students and colleagues on the streets of Edinburgh.
As an academic in a humanities discipline, I am the first to acknowledge the genuine, real-world importance of symbols and of history. We very much need to deal with those aspects of our colonialist past and its persistent legacy. But if institutional racism and xenophobia are our concerns, then there are issues much closer to home that Edinburgh and other universities need more immediately to address as first steps in the fight. Symbolic gestures such as the renaming of buildings in themselves do absolutely nothing to address the real problems of racism, xenophobia, and inequality that beset our society, and there is a real danger that they may in fact serve as cover for the absence of any genuine attempt to do so.
Douglas Cairns is professor of classics at the University of Edinburgh