We can't afford to leave foreign students out in the cold

Especially all night, in queues.

In a Sun article a few weeks ago, Theresa May boasted: “We saw a record 62 per cent drop in student visas in the first quarter of 2012.” Year on year, they fell by a third to 213,836. I suppose some congratulations are due to the Tory Home Secretary and her party – they are successfully destroying Britain’s reputation as a leading destination for higher education. Foreign students bring in an estimated £12.5bn a year, but it’s not as if the country needs to exploit its competitive sectors during the deepest recession in a century, is it? 

May went on in the same piece to blame immigration for increased “pressure on our health, education, transport and welfare services” – all areas that the Conservative Party has industriously been assaulting with its poorly thought-out and expensive policies, which have seen the national deficit climb 22 per cent so far this year.

Despite May’s triumphant tone in reporting the drop in student visas, the universities minister David “Opportunities For Women Ended Up Magnifying Social Divides” Willetts (of all people) recently suggested a sensible movement towards decoupling foreign student figures from those measuring net migration. "I want to make clear the attitude of the government," he said. "There is no limit on the number of legitimate students from overseas studying at British universities." Net migration will still include foreign students but the publication of disaggregated figures within migration statistics will hopefully help reorientate the debate in a healthier direction – ie, away from May's hot air.

International students are not, on the whole, permanent migrants. That’s why other major English-language education exporters such as Australia and the US don’t even include them in immigration caps. However, because as many as two in every five arrivals to the UK are here to study, the temptation to down-engineer their figures is irresistible to a government that has pledged to cut net migration to the "tens of thousands".

Phantom menace

Meanwhile, UK institutions are slipping down international league tables as a result of what the Times Higher Education World University Rankings editor Phil Baty has called a “perfect storm” of “falling public investment in teaching and research; hostile visa conditions discouraging the world’s top academics and students from coming here; and serious uncertainty about where our next generation of scholars will come from, with a policy vacuum surrounding postgraduate study”. Is this a deliberate Tory strategy? Maybe if they make British higher education really rubbish, those menacing foreigners will just go away?

Or how about making them stand around in queues through the night to register their stay in this country? This week, footage by Daniel Stevens of the National Union of Students emerged showing students from 42 countries lining the streets in their hundreds in the early hours of the morning, hoping to make their seven-day deadline to check in with the Overseas Visitors Records Office. "It is absolutely unacceptable that students be asked to be queue for hours, often in terrible weather, and be expected to arrive before 6.30am to have any chance of being seen," said Stevens to the BBC. Queuing has long been considered "a sacred part of British culture" but . . . seriously.

Yo Zushi's most recent album of songs, "Notes for 'Holy Larceny'", was released by Pointy Records (£9.99). His new song "Careless Love" can be downloaded for free here.

Hospitality fail: a protester in London in August. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

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Is Google Maps discriminating against people with disabilities?

Its walking routes are not access-friendly.

“I ended up having to be pushed through a main road in London, which was really scary.” Three weeks ago, Mary Bradley went to London to visit her daughter Belinda, who is just finishing her first year at university there. Her other daughter joined them on the trip.

But what was supposed to be an enjoyable weekend with her two children turned into a frustrating ordeal. The apps they were using to find their way around kept sending them on routes that are not wheelchair-friendly, leading to time-consuming and sometimes frightening consequences.

Bradley has been using a wheelchair – when having to go longer distances without a vehicle – for over a year, due to a 45-degree curve in her spine, severe joint facet deterioration in her back, and other conditions.

She lives in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, and has made the trip up to London to visit her daughter a handful of times. Each visit, they use Google Maps and the transport app Citymapper to find their way around, as neither of them know London particularly well.


Belinda and Mary Bradley. Photo: Belinda Bradley

“It was just horrible,” says Bradley of her most recent trip to the capital. “We’re following the maps, and we go along, then find we are faced with a footbridge, and realise there was no way I was going to get over it, so we had to go back the way we’d come. At one point, we were faced with a strip of narrow pavement the wheelchair couldn’t go down. That was something we found all weekend.”

While Google Maps did highlight accessible Tube stations, they found that once they had alighted to do the rest of the journey to their destination on foot, “it took us three times as long, because the route that it takes us just wasn’t passable”.

They ended up having to try different routes “having no real idea of where were going”.

“It meant that it took so much longer, the girls ended up having to push me for longer, I got more and more embarrassed and frustrated and upset about the whole thing,” Bradley tells me.

At one point, her daughters had to take her down a main road. “Being pushed on a road, especially in London, is scary,” she says. “It was scary for me, it was scary for the girls.”

When they returned home, Belinda, who is a 19-year-old Writing and Theatre student at the University of Roehampton, was so furious at the situation that she started a petition for Google Maps to include wheelchair-friendly routes. It hit over 100,000 signatures in a fortnight. At the time of writing, it has 110,601 petitioners.


Belinda's petition.

Belinda was surprised that Google Maps didn’t have accessible routes. “I know Google Maps so well, [Google]’s such a big company, it has the satellite pictures and everything,” she says. “So I was really surprised because there’s loads of disabled people who must have such an issue.”

The aim of her petition is for Google Maps to generate routes that people using wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, or pushing prams will be able to use. “It just says that they’re a little bit ignorant,” is Belinda’s view of the service’s omission. “To me, just to ignore any issues that big needs to be solved; it needs to be addressed almost immediately.”

But she also wants to raise awareness to “make life better in general” for people with disabilities using navigation apps.

Belinda has not received a response from Google or Citymapper, but I understand that Google is aware of the petition and the issue it raises. Google declined to comment and I have contacted Citymapper but have not received a response.

Google Maps does provide information about how accessible its locations are, and also allows users to fill in accessibility features themselves via an amenities checklist for places that are missing that information. But it doesn’t provide accessible walking routes.

“There’s no reason that they couldn’t take it that bit further and include wheelchair accessible routes,” says Matt McCann, the founder of Access Earth, an online service and app that aims to be the Google Maps for people with disabilities. “When I first started Access Earth, I always thought this is something Google should be doing, and I was always surprised they haven’t done it. And that’s the next logical step.”

McCann began crowdsourcing information for Access Earth in 2013, when he booked a hotel in London that was supposed to be wheelchair-friendly – but turned out not to be accessible for his rollator, which he uses due to having cerebral palsy.

Based in Dublin, McCann says Google Maps has often sent him on pedestrian routes down cobbled streets, which are unsuitable for his rollator. “That’s another level of detail; to know whether the footpaths are pedestrian-friendly, but also if they’re wheelchair-friendly as well in terms of the surface,” he notes. “And that was the main problem that I had in my experience [of using walking routes].”

Access Earth, which includes bespoke accessibility information for locations around the world, aims to introduce accessible routes once the project has received enough funding. “The goal is to encompass all aspects of a route and trip,” he says. Other services such as Wheelmap and Euan's Guide also crowdsource information to provide access-friendly maps.

So how long will it take for more established tech companies like Google to clear the obstacles stopping Mary Bradley and millions like her using everyday services to get around?

“You can use them for public transport, to drive, you can use them if you’re an able-bodied person on foot,” she says. “But there are loads of us who are completely excluded now.”

Sign Belinda Bradley’s “Create Wheelchair Friendly Routes on Google Maps" here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.