Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 7 September 2012
The crisis at London Metropolitan University, which has had its right to educate non-EU foreign students withdrawn by the UK Border Authority, is by far the biggest faced by any UK higher education institution in living memory. According to its vice-chancellor, Malcolm Gillies, if the university’s legal appeal does not overturn the UKBA’s decision, it stands to lose nearly one-fifth of its income, more than £25 million.
If the UKBA decision is upheld by the courts, some 2,600 students and prospective students will be directly affected, of whom nearly 500 will be deported – with the rest given four weeks to find another course. Several courses with large numbers of non-EU foreign students will cease to be viable, with knock-on effects for UK and EU students and for staff.
It is difficult to imagine a more heavy-handed and ill-timed response to what the UKBA says is London Met’s problem – that it has admitted large numbers of students who are inadequately qualified or have the wrong visas, and has given places to people who aren’t students at all but are using student visas as a means of getting into the UK to work.
I’ve no idea whether London Met is guilty of any of these things – though if it has never recruited sub-standard overseas students in order to pocket their fees it is unique among British universities. But it has the means to weed out students who shouldn’t be there because they aren’t up to it or aren’t there because they registered at the start of the academic year and didn’t turn up again.
At the very latest, the useless and the bogus are caught when they fail or do not show either for their first-year exams or for the resits, at which point they are unceremoniously chucked out.
Of course, it might be that London Met’s assessment system is or has been slack and needs to be tighter. But that is not what it is being pulled up for. The UKBA’s complaint is that it has not been checking students’ visas with sufficient rigour and has failed to keep detailed records of student attendance – essentially, that it has failed in its duty of immigration control.
The implication is clearly that nothing short of regular inspections of students’ visas and registers in every lecture would suffice to persuade the UKBA that London Met deserves to be allowed to educate non-EU students.
This in itself represents a drastic curtailment of the university’s autonomy – and the idea that non-EU foreign students should be subjected to special status checks and attendance controls is insulting to them because it rests on the assumption that they are up to no good unless they prove otherwise.
But the UKBA didn’t just insist on the university adopting more intrusive surveillance of non-EU foreign students. It is demanding that it throws out all of its non-EU foreign students a few weeks before the start of the academic year. Even if all 500 of those slated by the UKBA for deportation had registered for a course at London Met purely as a scam for getting into the country and had never done a day’s study – and of course that isn’t the true picture – that still leaves more than 2,100 students and prospective students who have been expelled from a university where they were studying or hoping to study in good faith and at considerable expense.
The UKBA’s action has sent a message loud and clear to anyone outside the EU who might be thinking of coming to Britain to study: if you don’t want to risk being arbitrarily thrown off a course you’ve paid thousands of pounds to take, go elsewhere.
The question of whether there should be a statue of George Orwell placed outside the BBC headquarters at Broadcasting House briefly engaged the upmarket papers last month after Joan Bakewell said that outgoing BBC director-general Mark Thompson had dismissed the idea because Orwell was far too left-wing. I was annoyed that nearly everyone who expressed an opinion said either that Orwell wasn’t left-wing, which is simply untrue, or that he was but his politics are irrelevant to his enduring appeal, which I think is quite wrong.
What really got me, however, was that no one said that Broadcasting House is completely inappropriate as the site for an Orwell statue. True, he worked for the BBC broadcasting to India in 1942-43 – but he hated it, describing it as “two wasted years”, and left to join Tribune (which was then, as now, left-wing) and for the next four years contributed to it some of his best journalistic work. The best place for a central London statue would be close to Tribune’s then offices at 222 The Strand. There’s plenty of space opposite, on the pavement outside the Royal Courts of Justice.