Saturday, August 18, 2012

Suspension of London Metropolitan University: Has UK Border Agency overrreached its mandate?

London Metropolitan University, one of the bigger and popular universities in London, had its license to recruit international students temporarily suspended on 20th July. This is a result of an audit of the university's management of its international students, reportedly carried out last March by UK Border Agency. The university has now disappeared from the UKBA's sponsors' list, despite reassurances that a follow-up audit has already been carried out, and the university would be reinstated 'next week'. The chat forums are now abuzz with students complaining, and being right in the middle of the recruitment season, this is bound to hit the university, and the international students who opted to come to it, quite hard. For UK Border Agency (UKBA), it may indeed be a case of over-reaching its mandate.

Let's be clear: The rationale behind the current, tough visa regime was to weed out 'bogus colleges'. No one denies the fact that there was widespread abuse of the British student visa system, though this was primarily because the implementation of it was so lax. For example, almost no one ever got deported, even if the students were 'reported' after disappearing from their course of study. In any case, the regulations were about validating which institutions can or can not sponsor international students. But the Border Agency has now started getting into what would be a matter of academic decision making, namely, what level of English proficiency does the student need to come to UK (and a discriminatory one at that, because EU students follow a different set of requirements), how many hours of classes a student must attend and how much holidays they may have (almost all universities will fail to meet the current requirements), how many resit attempts they have should they require it (again, a discriminatory one, as their local peers may have greater entitlement), what can be allowed as a drop out rate, etc.

Initially, though the implementation of the system was harsh, the burden fell disproportionately on private colleges, virtually wiping out the sector. The universities were mostly left alone, given that there were significant systems of accountability already in place for the public universities. However, LondonMet's case may be the first one where UKBA has finally caught up with a public university (except a previous suspension of Glasgow Caledonian, which was rather brief), and if it starts applying its norms squarely, it may prove impossible to let the university back in business because the norms were, in the first place, so impractical.

Which leads to my central point, UK Border Agency isn't an education regulator, and has no capability or power to do so. Its job is to run the immigration system appropriately, which it is making a mess of. This is because, as the usual excuses go, it is underfunded and understaffed. Surely, one can't run an efficient system when it takes six months or more to consider a visa application, during which time the applicant is free to stay in the country legally. Also, most unfavourable decisions made go through appeals, and UKBA tends to lose most of these cases because of gross incompetence. Despite the widespread publicity, it fails to manage the immigration queues at Heathrow and have reportedly lost track of more than 150,000 migrants who were supposed to leave the country but did not. As the Ministers cut resources more and more, they compensate this by trying to talk tough, and burdening the agency with more and more work, putting them in the lord and the master role that they are completely incapable of carrying out.

Take, for example, the recent decision by UKBA to interview all student visa applicants in certain territories to assess their English language capability. This decision was taken based on a report which identified that many students are still coming to UK without the prescribed level of English proficiency. However, UKBA, or the Border Posts, have almost no logistical capability to carry out this task. And, above all, this may be a complete non-starter: The UKBA's guidelines on English proficiency was based on a mistaken view of the Common European Framework, errors which have now been identified but not corrected . Further, there are studies to suggest that an international student's academic attainment may have very little correlation with their level of English proficiency before coming to UK. It is one example where UKBA, and their bosses at Home Office, has invented a task which they can't carry out, based on an ignorant view of the student profile.

In its two years, the Coalition Government has inflicted an enormous damage on the UK Higher Education system, which will be hard to reverse in the years to come. Apart from the new funding regime, which was half-hearted, scantly thought through and badly implemented, the Coalition Government failed to present any coherent ideas about the future of UK Higher Education other than making fantastic statements such as the British Universities should go abroad and set up campuses and British students should start doing so too. They have created a half-draconian half-comical immigration policy which has no clear objective other than a fantastic and ill-defined goal of reducing immigration to 'tens of thousands', and went after the soft target of international students at the cost of the global attractiveness of the British universities and other institutions. We are still in early days of these reforms, but going by current indicators, these changes will have a devastating effect even in the short run. Just one year into it, we can already see the rise of alternative education destinations, like Canada and Malaysia, and a virtual wipe-out of the private sector colleges which used to serve as a feeder for most British universities. The banks abroad have become far more sceptical about the value of British education, and started refusing loans to prospective students who wish to come to Britain. Indeed, much of this will continue to play out in months and years to come, but a very likely effect of these reforms is to squeeze some of the marginal universities into bankruptcy and into the lap of private equity (this may be an intended consequence of the policy changes).

London Metropolitan University has had problems in the past, but it was lately making great progress under a new leadership. It took tough decisions, including disbanding the highly discriminatory 'overseas student fees' and even the VC discussed about making some premises of the university alcohol-free to respect the views of its Muslim students, as examples, and showed sensitivity and greater understanding of the changing marketplace than any other university in town. UKBA's suspension will stall the changes and may force this university, which may now become financially fragile and may also need an infrastructure upgrade soon enough due to its aging buildings and facilities, firmly into an uncertain financial future. As for UKBA, they have walked into the uncharted territory of changing the education system, and into the domain of questioning academic judgements. Good luck to them!

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An Update on this post is available at http://sundayposts.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/london-metropolitan-university-lessons.html

3 comments:

Rob Slack said...

There is anecdotal evidence that London Met has "lost" many..perhaps thousands...of overseas students and still has many unreported cases on its books. If true (and there is so much smoke it is hard to believe there is no fire) then it seems many people have entered the country as L.Met students then to work illegally in the black economy.

I have also heard...from what I regard as a highly reliable source...that many overseas students barely speak English. It is difficult to see how they can study successfully.

I do not know if the story in The Sunday Times is correct:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/14Hq64IEdqE3ErVnoVw_buv53ggIBkONuoBZksTt0Rno/edit?pli=1

the University says its isn't:

http://www.londonmet.ac.uk/news/news-releases/2012-press-releases/response-in-regard-to-the-sunday-times-story-on-london-metropolitan-universitys-highly-trusted-status.cfm

Rob Slack

Supriyo Chaudhuri said...

Thanks for this comment. Most of us don't know what really happened. However, it is fair to say all of the above is plausible, and it may also be common across the universities.

The way UKBA wants sponsors to track students is almost impossible without running a police organization, and besides, the incentive for 'disappearance' remains high when UKBA fails to deport the students who have been reported. If the universities have to remain teaching institutions, and the relationships between students and the institution are to remain functional, UKBA has to do their job more diligently rather than passing it on to the institutions.

The issue about English speaking is common too. I noted that University of Manchester was using TOEFL Practice Tests (the solutions to which are usually available in the market) for testing English language levels of the applicants. I think there is an issue about determining the right 'level' of English, as the UKBA's mechanistic guidelines smack of an elitism wholly unwarranted in the modern world. I have met Chinese students (in particular) with brilliant mathematical abilities but less than stellar English speaking capabilities: They breeze through the English university curriculum without ever acquiring a great command of the language. Perhaps we need to recognize the fact that fluency of English speaking may not be necessary either to complete a degree from an UK university nor to live in London, something that makes UK, and London in particular, such an attractive place to come and study.

Supriyo

Supriyo Chaudhuri said...

Rob

Also, thanks for pointing out the severity of the situation, and that the license is not just temporarily suspended, but being revoked now.

http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=420965&c=1

This would have enormous impact on not just LondonMET, but attractiveness of UK Universities as a whole. They were seen as a safe heavens even after many private colleges fell foul of UKBA, but this is sure to change now.

I see another crisis coming, with many universities offering their CAS through private colleges, which is now attracting a huge number of students. This system is too loosely controlled to work, and a fall-out may affect a number of universities.

Supriyo

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