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.
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