Two Sundays ago, the leadership and students of London Metropolitan University found out from a national newspaper that their license to sponsor international students from outside of the EU was to be revoked. London Met, probably the university in our country with most working class students, has been calculated to have more black students than the entire Russell Group. It is focussed upon teaching and education, unlike some of the more research intensive institutions. By withdrawing its immigration license, the Conservative-led government has deprived what is already a financially impoverished institution of a fifth of its income and undermined the opportunities of the rest of its students at a fell stroke.
The other core issue with the act of withdrawing accreditation in itself is the harm it inflicts upon the university sector at large. When our Higher Education institutions are being subsidised by around £12 billion by international students, the impression that the threatened deportation has had around the world is not exactly conducive towards further recruitment of high quality students, especially given that NUS have described it publicly as “xenophobic”. Such is the concern amongst the academic community that this week’s Times Higher Education carried a story alluding to the possibility that it might undermine the credit ratings, and therefore the fund raising capabilities, of some of the nation’s most esteemed institutions.
What is most perturbing about the whole affair is that London Met does not appear to have done anything particularly wrong, or at the very least of the gravity that would warrant such draconian action from the Border Agency. There have been around 15 changes to the immigration controls that our academic institutions are forced to administer in the last three years alone, and the evidence clearly suggests that these were difficult to implement, especially when the Border Agency were uncooperative with those universities who asked for help and advice. It is naturally little wonder that Malcolm Gillies, the Vice Chancellor of London Met, has had his administration lodge a complaint to the High Court, in an attempt to urgently reverse the changes, although this is unlikely to reverse the greater part of the harm that has now been done, both to London Met, and the sector at large.
In fact, some institutions appear to have committed worse sins than those currently being alleged against London Met, at least from the point of view of immigration. At Durham University, the release of a Wikileaks cable led to revelations that professor Anoush Etheshami’s department had been accepting money from the US Government to gather intelligence on visiting officials from the Iranian government. This led to Iranian students trying to lodge asylum claims, and an attempt by one of Etheshami’s colleagues at aiming libel action at a student journalist who provided coverage of the affair. Recent months have also noted the presence of a member of the Syrian government close to President Al-Assad on a Doctoral Programme there, and there is the recent hire of David Held, Gaddafi’s old supervisor as Master of one of the colleges. This does not appear to be particularly conducive towards protecting our borders, although no one in our Border Agency has complained to anyone’s knowledge.
Or how about Kingston University, where academic standards in one department were found to be so lacking that the Quality Assurance Agency upheld a complaint in relation to the attempt to bully the external examiner in pretending that one of the courses lacked standards. Given the obsession with “fake” degrees, perhaps maybe our Border Agency should have been involved? A Russell Group University reported that, at their Senate meeting, a concern had been identified in relation to attendance monitoring, in that the system was fundamentally incorrect, but they received “verbal feedback” indicating that as long as steps were taken towards correcting this, then there would be no issue. The fact is that UKBA have not been so concerned when monitoring certain institutions; indeed the only other universities that have been forcefully targeted are Teeside and Glasgow Caledonian, both of which also take a large number of working class students. This appears to be double-standards.
Here’s the nub: the issue is not really about immigration. The Government evidently do not care substantially if there are administrative issues, or even improper institutional management, at other, ostensibly more esteemed, universities. Nor do they care about London Met, or what it offers for its student community and its contribution to society. Either someone in the Government cared so little about London Met that they were happy for the license to be withdrawn, without regard for the consequences, or they took the calculated decision to withdraw its license in order to undermine the university and the opportunities of working class students. The fact is that this would never be allowed to happen in our more esteemed institutions – imagine the uproar within government if there was even a consideration of withdrawing, say Durham’s, Kingston’s or indeed nearly any other British academic institution’s license. Perhaps this is the reason why Gilles has had, at best, muted support from his fellow Vice Chancellors. The flip side of this is that international students in most of our Higher Education Institutions are unlikely to have anything substantive to fear. One the other hand, working class students, or indeed anyone from a widening participation background, probably should be very concerned about future education opportunities.