The news that London Metropolitan University has had its power to recruit and teach non-EU students withdrawn, should be a matter for deep concern and not just for those directly affected. Of course you cannot but help feel for the nearly 3,000 non-EU students who have paid a small fortune to study at the University who now have 60 days to find somewhere else to study or face deportation – overwhelming vulnerable young people a long way from home. Certainly the long term consequences for London Metropolitan University could also be chilling. The University’s vice-chancellor has estimated that the decision could cost them £30 million a year or nearly a fifth of their income. Given that non-EU students account for less than a tenth of their student intake, it clearly indicates the economic reliance our Universities have on such students – and that’s without considering the other benefits that such students bring. But why should it be a matter of wider concern? It is a question I will address but first a little background.
A spokesperson for both the university and the Immigration Minister, Damian Green, were interviewed on this morning’s Radio 4 Today programme. What one heard was a tale of two tales. The University spokesperson stated quite bluntly that they had no idea why the decision had been taken. The Minister however trotted off areas where he considered the University deficient in meeting the rules required for them to freely recruit and teach non-EU students. Without getting in to the detail of what the University did or did not do, you cannot but be struck by the huge gap left by these two statements. Were not UKBA’s concerns clearly stated to the University, did not the Agency work with the University to address these issues? Surely these diverse accounts must reflect a breakdown in communication.
In the same interview, it was put to Damian Green, that this whole mess is the consequence of the Government’s attempt to drive down net migration figures. Here Mr Green responded by trying to put as much distance between what is happening at London Metropolitan University and the Government commitment on net migration. We were told that it was purely a matter of universities complying with the law to ensure that they were not used by bogus students to gain access to the UK labour market. Here I would have to say that I believe this to be a disingenuous response. The London Metropolitan University situation has not happened in a political vacuum but is firmly rooted in the Government’s commitment on net migration. The procedures that the University has been deemed to fall foul of, is part of a wider bunch of measures designed to knock some of the student numbers off the net migration figures. Indeed, it’s been floated with some justification that overwhelmingly overseas students are temporary migrants and should be taken out of the net migration figures, as happens in some other countries. It’s an open secret that the Government has rejected this option because they fear it would be portrayed as them fiddling the figures! Through the actions of this Government, the whole issue of non-EU students has been highly politicised and it does Damian Green no credit to pretend otherwise.
Let us also take up the issue of bogus students. The Government in trying to drive down non-EU students numbers, quite legitimately sought to tackle the issue of bogus students. Certainly the TUC nor indeed any other body that I know, has ever denied that some non-EU people have used study as a means of gaining access to the UK labour markets in an illegitimate way. The Government also assured a concerned University sector, that overwhelmingly the measures put in place in no way threatened them as bone fide providers of quality Higher Education. That the Government’s target was mainly aimed at private colleges offering the like of English languages courses, which did not have the staff or facilities to deliver such courses and indeed made no demands on students once their fees were paid. We have however gone from what is a defensible position, in tackling bogus colleges providing visas for bogus students, to threatening the viability of one of our universities and threatening nearly 3,000 students with deportation. I do not believe that Damian Green believes there is anything bogus about London Metropolitan University nor do I believe he considers their non-EU students bogus. Can he afford to shrug his shoulders and think it’s unfortunate but it’s likely to be a one off, with no wider significance? I think not.
Imagine, for example, you are a young Indian looking for a university place abroad. You are drawn to the UK partly because you speak English. However you have heard in the media that the UK are generally making it harder for Indian’s to enter the UK and this is largely driven by a Government appealing to anti-migrant sentiments. You then read that for some reason related to immigration law, a large group of overseas students are being thrown off their course at a UK University and are facing deportation. Furthermore, that there is no suggestion that this was happening because of anything the students themselves had done. That the students totally complied with the law and were hard working committed students. In addition, you understand that there had been no assurances from the British government that this could not happen again. To put it at its weakest, faced with such information would you be less likely to opt for a UK University? Or do you go to a university in another English speaking country or indeed to one of many European universities increasingly offering degrees via the English language.
If you were that Indian student, what would your choice be?