The government’s behaviour in its decision to revoke London Metropolitan’s ability to sponsor international students and the resulting chaos created for genuine students, is a devastating blow to the international reputation of our higher education sector and its capacity to act as an engine for growth. Given that UK higher education (HE) is our seventh largest export industry, worth £8bn a year, with a huge capacity for growth, this is incredibly counter-productive.
The UK Border Agency (UKBA) is tasked with the important job of looking after the flow of student immigration. We fully support the government’s attempts to tackle bogus colleges and stop immigration fraud, and that does require tough enforcement of the rules. But on this occasion it seems the UKBA’s processes have caught too many legitimate international students in their net.
Part of the problem is the very different approaches to process and regulation that are taken by the UKBA and the HE sector. UKBA rules change often, with little or no consultation. Generally speaking they come into force straightaway, and usually without a great deal of publicity. Bulky new versions of guidance are frequently issued without any signposting as to what has been changed. UKBA have changed their rules 11 times since 2010. Scrambling to keep up with this, universities tell me they dedicate ever more resources to ensure compliance with the rules, but still feel perpetually on the back foot.
This approach to process is flawed and sits particularly awkwardly in UK HE. For example, our universities are by-and-large responsible for their own regulation of quality. Internal processes to assure quality are far reaching in every institution. The Quality Assurance Agency rarely finds severe problems in its external review process because it works with universities at every stage to ensure they are complying with good practice and fulfilling their duties to students. In contrast, UKBA does not have the same level of engagement with universities, and certainly not at every stage of the process, thus creating a risk that in terms of compliance with the rules and guidance, something might slip through the net.
We do not have all the detail about London Met’s case – no doubt we will learn more once the judicial review begins. But process issues have been affecting the whole sector. At a recent meeting with a Vice-Chancellor, I was told that UKBA officers asked for a set of student data to be produced within 20 minutes of the request being made. The data was held across 3 different computer systems, to ensure its integrity and prevent hacking, so producing it as quickly as requested was simply not possible. Given that the data existed, was robust, and once it was checked was found to be fully in compliance with UKBA rules, this should have been a straightforward matter to resolve. But in fact it caused a huge amount of difficulty and took up an inordinate amount of time.
The case of London Met should draw attention to UKBA’s counter-productive process and the havoc it is now causing in UK universities and for the thousands of legitimate students now caught up in it all who are being forced to find a new university or face deportation. Placing such a burden on these students is unfair, unjust and defies all reason.
While it makes sense to prevent any new international students coming to London Met, the government should recognise that the position of current, legitimate London Met students, who are here legally and have done nothing wrong, requires a different approach. In this special case, it seems that it would take much less effort to find some way of enabling them to carry on at London Met and finish their course, rather than establish an emergency mechanism to find them a new place. Finding new accommodation and the process of moving itself will also be a costly affair, piling further financial pressure on those who have already paid so much for the privilege of a UK higher education.
Even before this episode, NUS published research that showed that students from outside the EU were increasingly likely not to recommend studying in the UK to their friends and family. Worse still, more and more legitimate international students are feeling that the UK is now a hostile environment for them.
The NUS research shows that students want to come to the UK, because our universities are seen as world-class and carry a premium that is almost unrivalled in the global employment market. It is vital that we do nothing further to jeopardise this position, put at risk an £8bn export industry and ruin the lives of students who thought they were coming to the UK for something better than this.
Shabana Mahmood is the Shadow Minister for Higher Education and the MP for Birmingham Ladywood