London Metropolitan University: Government Plays to the Gallery

Even by the Coalition government’s standards, the decision by the UK Border Agency to permanently revoke London Metropolitan University’s license to teach and recruit non-EU students is a stunningly crass and shameful piece of anti-immigrant rabble-rousing that represents a public image disaster for the UK.

In economic terms, it is a spectacular own goal: not only in its financial impact on London Metropolitan University, but in its potential ramifications for the UK higher education sector, for whom overseas students bring in £12.5 billion per year.

Even on its own terms, UKBA’s insistence that ‘allowing London Metropolitan University to continue to sponsor and teach international students was not an option’ makes no sense.  According to the government, the decision to revoke the license was a result of London Metropolitan’s failure to address ‘serious and systemic failings’ first raised six months ago.

These include the fact that ‘a quarter of the 101 students sampled were studying at the university when they had no leave to remain in this country;’ the lack of ‘proper evidence’ to demonstrate that students had reached the expected level of English in 20 out of 50 checked cases; and an absence of attendance monitoring issues in 142 out of 250 sampled records.

It is difficult to see how these findings justify the revocation of London University’s license. Even supposing that UKBA’s claims are accurate, and that its samples indicate the systematic use of the university as a conduit for ‘illegal immigrants’ seeking work in the UK, it ought to have been possible to separate ‘genuine’ from ‘bogus’ students without leaving some 3,000 students at risk of deportation.

Many of these students are in the middle of degree courses in which they and their families have invested a great deal of money, they will surely struggle to find an alternative educational provider so close to the new academic year.

Nor does the fact that a sample of 20 out of 50 students may not have reached the mandatory level of English necessarily prove that these students came to the UK to work rather than study. It is not uncommon for universities to accept students whose level of English may be initially low, not only because it is in their financial interest to do so, but also in the not unreasonable expectation that their level of English will improve as the course goes on.

Even if it could be proven that every one of the 20 out of 50 cases sampled by UKBA were working rather than studying,  that would not justify what amounts to a form of collective punishment which is aimed at both the university and the remaining 30 students who presumably have reached the expected level of English.

The fiasco only really makes sense in political terms.   The Coalition is in deep trouble. Committed to a deficit-reduction programme that has wrought havoc across British society without regenerating the economy, it emanates incompetence, ideological zealotry and sleaze in equal measure, in addition to a glaringly opportunistic determination to use the crisis to prise open as many public services to the private sector as it can get away with.

Not surprisingly, the Coalition is trailing Labour in the polls, despite a far-from-convincing performance from Ed Miliband. In addition, Cameron’s marriage of convenience with the Liberal Democrats is also coming under fire from within his own party.

With almost everything it touches turning to dust, and UKIP gaining political ground and threatening to attract votes from the Tory heartlands, the government is clearly more determined than ever to use immigration as a fallback issue to galvanize its own political base and allay public ‘concerns’ about immigration.

These ‘concerns’ are largely due to the relentless scaremongering and nativist and xenophobic rhetoric emanating from the government itself, backed up by its supporters in the rightwing press and the likes of Migration Watch, which depict the UK as a beleaguered ‘full island’ with a ‘broken’ immigration system that supposedly privileges foreigners—both legal and illegal—at the expense of British citizens.

Such ‘them or us’ distinctions have a particularly visceral appeal in a period of prolonged and seemingly intractable economic crisis, and they also have an obvious attraction to a government in search of distractions from its own failings.

It isn’t surprising therefore, that on the same morning that UKBA announced the revocation of London Metropolitan’s license, Immigration Minister Damian Green insisted that the government was on track to reach its campaign pledge to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands and that its ‘strong measures’ were ‘turning the ship around.’

Green based these upbeat assertions on a fall in visa applications and a slight drop in net migration from 252,000 in 2010 to 216,000 last year. Never mind that the Office for National Statistics disputed whether this reduction had anything to do with government policies.

This is a cowardly and opportunistic government that will do anything to remain in office and is already thinking about the next election. In its determination to please the anti-immigrant lobby and keep unwanted foreigners out of the UK, it is clearly indifferent to the prospect of losing the UK’s market share to foreign universities—not to mention the disastrous impact of its latest demonstration of ‘toughness’ on the thousands of young men and women who came to study at London Metropolitan in good faith.

In May this year, a letter from 70 university Chancellors and Chairs of Council called on Cameron to ‘ to support our universities in their efforts to recruit genuine international students.’   In conclusion, the authors argued that:

In this Olympic year, when our universities will be hosting athletics teams and media from across the globe, we urge you to send a clear message that genuine international students are also welcome in, and valued by, the United Kingdom.

In its heavy-handed crackdown on London Metropolitan, the government has given a very different kind of message, which transcends economic logic, morality and common sense.