Student hands over form.
Teacher notices that the student is new to the institution, and that the form hasn’t been pre-printed with their details. They ask for various bits of personal information: name, address, date of birth, etc. Later on come some deeper questions: “How long have you lived in England?”
“Are you a British citizen?”
“Are you a refugee?”
“Are you married?”
“Are you working?”
“Are you claiming any benefits? Which ones?”
“When you left early last year, why was that? Where did you go? You should have told us.”
This isn’t a Home Office interview (I’m told they are much nastier) nor is it a police enquiry. This is an ESOL enrolment and while the overall conversation is friendly enough, and absolutely well-meaning, it struck me this evening that these are big questions, personal questions, intimate, even. And after the ESOL student leaves the enrolment with the department, they may have to go on to find out if they will need to pay fees, and if so, how much. Here they may be asked even more penetrating financial questions, and be required to hand over various documents as evidence.
It is, of course, an exchange of power: learners sacrifice personal information, pieces of their identity, in return for the possibility of doing an ESOL course. Not the certainty of a course, like the more explicit exchange of an EFL student parting with hard cash in order to study English at a private school, but a mere possibility of a course. They may not be eligible for fee remission, nor for financial support: indeed, they may not be able to apply for the latter until they have enrolled on a course for which they have to pay fees. So the learner may sacrifice all this personal information only to discover that they cannot, due to their perilous finances, do the course they arrived that evening to apply for.
On the face of it, this would seem like a fair exchange: information for a course: indeed some sort of exchange has always taken place in enrolment halls across the world for any course. Not only this, but also people are pretty free with information these days, with 1 billion people signed up to Facebook, to Google, to Twitter, and to blog hosts like this one. On the face of it, many people are not coy about allowing FB to have their info but I wonder if they would be so sharing if they were pressed in a face to face context to part with the same information.
Information is valuable, and personal information even more so: marketing organisations, as we know, pay serious money for your electoral register information, for example. Personal information is also just that: personal, and giving up some of the information can be pretty hard going, especially in an open enrolment area, even if the people doing the asking are being nice about it.
If I was in that position, of being asked any number of personal questions, I don’t know if I would be feeling safe, or welcome, or even wanted, even though I know that ESOL teachers and college staff don’t really like having to ask those questions. We recognise the funding realities which dictate this barrage of enquiry at enrolment, and I think we rail against it. We may even try to make the reasons for it all clear, but it doesn’t take away the fact that we are asking those questions, and we are in a position of power. ESOL tutors do it out of necessity, perhaps, but by doing so, do we become the mute, or at least acquiescent, face of unsympathetic government policy, withholding privilege from learners unless they give up crucial pieces of personal data?
For a week or so before they join classes, learners exist in a college as collections of data, data which will talk of slicing and drilling down into. All too often, the discourse of personal data and the unconscious power relationships behind it is not one of humanity but of cold digital absolutes, ignorant of the people for whom it is part of their identity and their self.