London Metropolitan University: Lessons For Everyone

The Home Office has revoked the Tier 4 License of London Metropolitan University and branded it 'a threat to immigration control', Sunday Times reports.

Here is an university always in the news. It got its entire board of governors sacked only a couple of years back. However, it was popular and highly visible. It was fined in successive years for over-recruitment. It was criticised for not changing, and then for trying to change too much, as a new Vice Chancellor and his team tried to turn the university around. No wonder some of the commentators are now labelling it a 'controversial' university.

Thus far, it is simple: A faltering university fell foul of the regulators. Going by the report, it allowed students whose visas expired to attend classes. It did not report students who got visa and failed to show up to enrol. It did not properly assess the students' English. So on and so forth, a list of all-too predictable sins have already been laid out.

Clearly, the university got it wrong. These are serious omissions in the day and age of a punitive immigration regime. Beyond procedural concerns, there is always a legitimate concern that such negligence can quickly turn into a national security issue. 

These issues have already been highlighted in the media and would be discussed (hopefully, unless the very British 'never embarrass' rule intervenes) in the coming days. The university has to look closely into the management of students, and have to tighten some parts of its administration. But, there are other, less obvious issues arising from this saga, which I intend to highlight here.

First, London Metropolitan University is unusually well-known outside Britain's borders. Its reputation exceeds its ranking, I suspect, primarily because of its name. An average student abroad, and this day and age, average student is the one who is fuelling the global growth of student mobility, would know about London Metropolitan but may consider University of Surrey, a highly respected research university, an unknown quantity. The point is that the suspension of London Metropolitan may have far reaching impact on its peers, as far as the perception of overseas students are concerned.

Which brings us to the next point, which is that it is important how this process is actually carried out. Initial media reports suggested that since the license is revoked, the 2800 overseas students at the university will have to find a new institution or have to leave the country within 60 days. One would hope that this is not correct, because this will have enormous negative impact and shake the students' confidence in the UK universities altogether. Here are a set of students who enrolled in a well-known public university, paid their fees and attended their classes: Throwing them out of the university into an uncertain future for no fault of their own is not just unfair, it will be an indictment of the whole UK Higher Education system and its regulators. 

Third, I did predict, in an earlier post, that once UKBA catches up with an university, it will find it difficult to untangle itself, because the UKBA requirements are impractical in the first place. Most UK universities will fall foul of one or more of the provisions, and it is impossible to follow all its provisions without changing the established practices in the universities (which is near impossible, as the universities mostly follow the tongue-in-cheek rule set by Cambridge classicist F M Cornford, 'Nothing should ever be done for the first time') or increasing the cost significantly. It is impossible to see how the universities will, for example, increase the teaching hours to 15 hours a week, which is required by UKBA for international students, from its current 6 to 9 hours, without changing the lifestyles of local undergraduate students and tutors. The assessment of a student's English language ability will remain problematic, as will the implementation of the punitive regime of student monitoring and control as expected of sponsors by UKBA. It was convenient that all UK universities were granted Highly Trusted Status by default and UKBA was hands off as far as these institutions are concerned, but once the box is opened, as it is now, it will be hard to close it back again.

Also, the UK universities collectively taken their above-the-board status too seriously and tried to profit from it. They have actively lobbied to cut the private college students out of part time working, to create an opportunity for themselves to take on those students on their own sponsorship and profit from this opportunity. With myopia typical of career bureaucrats, they have now created a system by which students remain in private colleges but study under their sponsorship, a cozy but unsustainable system which is spreading fast and is likely to come under scrutiny soon. Again, once that box is opened, it would be hard for the universities concerned to hide anywhere (London Metropolitan was one of them, sponsoring students in a private institution in London regarding which the Quality Assurance Agency has raised concerns recently, and this is also part of the university's problem). 

In summary, the saga indicates the fragility of the current Higher Education/ Immigration system and that a rethink, a characteristic U-turn as this government is so used to, is needed. One could indeed follow the Australian example of Knight Review (as a commentator on one of my earlier post did point out), which looked at the declining student numbers, recognized that the global student market is a competitive space and laid out clear recommendations reconciling the requirements of international student community, private and public education providers and the public concerns about immigration. The government's desperate politicking has seriously harmed UK's perception as a welcoming place for global talent, and is now threatening its reputation for Higher Education and its Higher Education institutions. Though it is hard to see how Theresa May, the Home Secretary and a Tory with a hardline view on immigration, and Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, a somewhat lost Liberal, can work together (as it happened in case of Knight Review), but one would hope that this fiasco would prompt some action.


Brendan D'Cruz said…
Some interesting perspectives, and I agree that UK HE does have some reputational risks to now face. However, regarding LM and private education providers, LM was always a 'hands off' player leaving the cosy space you describe to others such as UEL, Bolton, Wales, Anglia Ruskin and RDI. These have had their own problems, indeed University of Wales is effectively no more as it winds up operations. Franchise and validation models are very different, and you do not seem to recognise this. Therefore UKBA intervention, which has been farcical and politically motivated, has damaged the ENTIRE sector significantly. Private providers have had to close as they cannot recruit students, and partnering with universities to assure quality was their only option. Even this is now problematic as the sector contracts, but has not stopped innovative universities doing their thing overseas using distributed and validation models, and saving students significant costs. Where it works and is properly regulated. As for Vince Cable the lost Liberal, hardly. Having asked him directly what the priorities are, there is no doubt in my mind he is on the right page. Good students that are motivated will always be welcomed to the UK, where they add value and take away capability. PSW is to be modified to reflect this. Those that are coming just to work under the pretence of study are not welcome, no matter how much money they bring with them. Vince is being lobbied to get the government to remove students from immigration targets and figures, as they are still classed as migrants. Not if they go back home, which is how it should be, if UKBA and the sector had a system that actually worked. LM did not and clearly paid the price.

Many thanks for this comment.

One area where I differ: The government's assumption, and repeated claims, that it is welcoming to good students overlook the competitive nature of the international education space and take the superior stature of the British universities for granted. The way to attract good students is to reduce the noise about immigration and that Britain is feeling besieged by immigrants, and that it is a dynamic society open to talent.

As for growth through validation, this may only be short term, as this intricately linked to the desirability of British qualifications in the international space, which is dependent on the perception of its universities and the message its students take home. From that perspective, University of Wales, and then, LMU affairs, did not really help. Indeed, the goodwill can last a lifetime, but it can also be fickle.

It is reassuring to know that Vince Cable still has a clear view, but, as with many things with this government, articulation isn't the right measure of intention or achievement. Vince Cable was one of my heroes (Disclaimer: I did not vote Lib-Dem), and feel disappointed that the burdens of office and requirements of compromise have worn out his political judgement, at least in some cases.


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