Wednesday, August 29, 2012

London Metropolitan University: UKBA's Moment of Truth

One would have considered the events surrounding the suspension of London Metropolitan University as a farce, if its tragic consequences were not so obvious. To recount the events, the University was visited by UKBA in March, subsequent to which its Tier 4 License, which allows the university to recruit students from outside the EU, was temporarily suspended on the 20th of July. The university was reportedly audited again in the first weeks of August, and then a report appeared in Sunday Times on the 26th August, quoting a leak and reporting that the license has now permanently been revoked. In a bizarre twist, then, on the 29th August, BBC reported that UKBA is yet to make a decision, while the university reported that they are inundated with hundreds of calls from worried students and their parents. Coming right in the middle of recruitment season, this is going to have a significant financial impact: The university says that it would potentially create a funding gap of over £10 million.

This, as I have commented in an earlier post, will have enormous impact on the perception of British Higher Education abroad. London Metropolitan, unbeknown to the people in the Government, carries a greater weight than its rankings may suggest: It has a high name recognition abroad. Besides, if a publicly funded university is barred from taking international students, and worse, if its legitimate students are suddenly disenfranchised and told to go home, which student and parent abroad will trust any of the lesser known British universities (Coventry, Derby, Staffordshire, West of England, Lincoln, all fine universities in their own domain, as examples)?

However, this post, like my earlier posts on the subject, is not about LondonMet. It is about UKBA. The flip-flop over this decision was both symptomatic of its dysfunction (they issue this statement on Wednesday, after the news broke on Sunday - are they kidding?) or a recognition of the mess that they have got into. [UKBA published the notification and then removed the story, but now LondonMet has confirmed this on their website]

Is it too optimistic now to think that this will prompt a review of the whole system? May be it is, to expect common sense from a government beholden to PR men and the beauty of their own rhetoric; however, this is a real moment of truth, in the education sector at least. The UKBA, chasing a political soft target and in the impractical quest to fulfil a loose promise made during electioneering, forgot what the role of the agency in a modern economy should be. Its actions are driven by a 'Fortress Britain' mentality, with a vaguely conjured up armada of immigrants floating somewhere in the Channel. However, if Britain has to progress and prosper, it needs to be the nation's talent management agency: proactive and welcoming to people who contribute to the knowledge and prosperity of the nation, yet protecting the system from abuse. This needs smarter implementation, greater human intelligence and better coordination with industries, civil society and the universities, the curators of knowledge and skills in the modern society. In reality, indeed, this is far from what the agency is doing.

One would think this unbelievable fiasco about LondonMet, where the Vice Chancellor gets to learn about the news from a Sunday Newspaper and one public agency blames another public body to be a 'threat to immigration control' all too publicly, will bring back some sense into this debate. UKBA has created a set of laughably impractical rules and set themselves up as an education regulator without the knowledge, the resources or the will to be one: All that happened to the unfortunate London Metropolitan students is an all too predictable breakdown of the system, at the first reality check, so to say. That way, despite the bizarreness of the circumstances, it was only natural that UKBA seemed confused and lost : They have, in probability, started realising the implications of the system they have themselves created.

Universities are straw men in Britain, linked to privilege and elitism, and somehow not seen as those cathedrals of aspiration as it is seen in most other countries. It is neither loved nor loathed; in the public psyche, barring some odd student protests, they are banned to indifference. The fact that this debate is going to affect the image of all British universities is unlikely to create a stir, therefore. However, it is possibly time to wake up from the country slumber and start seeing the world as it is: A place shaped by knowledge, ideas and talent, competitive but built on interconnections. Nostalgic as he might have been, Danny Boyle needed all the talent and technological excellence of modern Britain to showcase its past to the world: However, we should not drink the past splendour too heavily, pass the Danny Boyle test and know our place in the modern world.

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