I hold no brief for London Metropolitan University (LMU), which has been poorly managed for a long time. Nevertheless I feel that the UK Border Agency’s decision to remove its Highly Trusted Status in such a dramatic fashion was a poor one.
The decision was apparently made on the basis of three institutional failings. The first related to the number of students in the LMU sample who apparently did not have valid leave to remain. This is partly a consequence of the complicated bureaucratic procedures which applicants have to go through to obtain a visa even though their applications are perfectly genuine. There are in my experience always disputes about non-EEA status which drag on for months. University applicants who were in the UK already as school or college students may find they have to leave the country in order to reapply: some understandably try to cut corners. Long delays are reported in processing applications, while course starting dates wait for nobody. Most other universities will also have students on their books who should strictly not be here.
The second failing was inadequate documentation of the English language skills of applicants. Such documentation is difficult for applications tutors who have to compare different qualifications, and often have to wait for test reports from all over the world (some parts of which are in chaos, like Syria today or Iraq a few years ago) while attempting to fill target numbers against tight deadlines. It is a problem, but surely a problem concerning the academic integrity of courses, all of which will have language entrance requirements - and thus surely the business of the Quality Assurance Agency rather than the Border Agency. I have not, to be fair to LMU, seen evidence that the English standards on their courses are any worse than those at many comparable universities.
The third problem was attendance monitoring. Universities are not like schools where attendance is legally required and which can keep accurate registers on a day-to-day basis. I know, again from personal experience, that monitoring attendance in large lecture groups, for example, is extremely difficult. In London few students live on the campus where their teaching takes place and absence isn’t always apparent. It’s not just foreign students, incidentally: the attendance of domestic students is also increasingly erratic. A lot of teaching is of poorish quality, and some students prefer to work online at home rather than in libraries these days. Many programmes have project-based work which does not require regular attendance. Universities, including LMU, have invested considerable sums in new technologies to assist in keeping tabs on students. It doesn’t always work very well, and mistakes are strongly resented by students.
None of this excuses LMU’s failings, but it does suggest that they are failings shared to a greater or lesser extent by other universities – including some which have a far better academic reputation than LMU. A consistent trawling through the records (UKBA doesn’t have the resources, thankfully) would surely lead to the withdrawal of HTS from several other universities. There may be some merit in setting an example – the shooting of the odd admiral, as Voltaire remarked, to encourage the others. But there are also dangers. LMU is probably irrevocably damaged by this episode. Its students – domestic as well as non-EU – face great uncertainty. Those staff who can will leave in droves, anticipating the job losses which are inevitable. Others, less fortunate, will have a demoralising and much more difficult task in keeping some part of the LMU show on the road.
Inevitable, too, will be the fallout for the sector as a whole. David Willetts may flap around trying to assure people that this is a one-off, but the rest of the world will surely read this as a black mark against the whole UK university sector. Why go to university in a country which, while boasting the rule of law, allows an agency not even connected with education to arbitrarily ruin your educational plans and cost you huge amounts of money and stress? Better to go to Australia, New Zealand or Germany, where they order things better. And thus another huge invisible export industry goes down the pan.
And for what? To keep people who want to work out of the country: that’s what immigration restrictions do. For even if we allow that the motivation for some of these students may have been to work in the UK, so what? This demographic would be likely to be net contributors to the exchequer. Relatively few would stay forever.
If we really do need restrictions on immigration, why not move to a Gary Becker-style requirement for all immigrants to put up a fee or bond, repayable perhaps when students leave the country? This would generate some income and save resources as Border Agency staff were either sacked or redeployed more productively, for instance staffing Heathrow’s passport checkpoints. It would also mean universities would be able to deploy more staff towards teaching and improving the student experience rather than checking pieces of paper. At the moment, I fear that the LMU episode will mean all universities will instead be panicked into hugely expanding their administrative function to pre-empt any further nosing around by a UKBA which has got the taste for blood.
There are many things wrong with UK universities, but they relate to quality and student experience issues which are really not the concern of border guards in a free society.