London Met crisis attacks all students

by Mary Robertson

The absurdity of the government’s xenophobic immigration policy was thrown into sharp relief yesterday as the UK Border Agency (UKBA) revoked London Metropolitan University’s right to authorise visas, effectively meaning that London Met can no longer accept international students. The announcement coincided with the release of figures showing immigration levels well above the government’s arbitrary and irrational 100,000 per year target. It is at best a desperate attempt to hit that target, irrespective of its pernicious consequences for higher education. At worst, it is a continuation of the government’s efforts that began in winter 2010 to systematically denigrate UK higher education.
The effects of UKBA’s decision will be most cruelly felt by those international students already half-way through their degree at London Met who, despite having already shelled out tens of thousands of pounds in tuition fees, are now unable to finish the courses they started. Not content with destroying the futures of young people in Britain, it would seem, the government is now applying itself to shattering those of young people from abroad. One student told the Guardian yesterday that his father in Nigeria had had a heart attack on hearing that his son will not be able to finish his degree.

The decision will also have more far-reaching but no less destructive consequences on other students. UK universities are increasingly dependent on overseas tuition fees (much higher than those for domestic students) to make ends meet. By sending a clear message to international students that they are not welcome here, UKBA’s decision is likely to deter future international students coming to the UK and put this important source of funding in jeopardy.

It is absurd that international students, who come to the UK temporarily - and are of great economic benefit to the British economy - are included in immigration figures. But as worrying is the fact that the effects of this absurd policy will not be equally felt.

Unlike Britain’s elite Russell group universities, whose visa-granting rights have not been put into question, London Met caters to local students from poorer and ethnic minority backgrounds. Two thirds of its students come from local communities, three fifths are non-white, and 96% come from the state sector. Last year overseas student fees accounted for 15% of London Met’s income and in interviews yesterday, the Chancellor of London Met was unable to rule out the possibility of closure as a result of UKBA’s decision.

The London Met decision therefore shows the government’s xenophobic and cynically opportunistic attempts to cut headline immigration figures dovetailing with its willingness (even wilfulness) to see non-elite higher education institutions fail. It is an attack both on international students and on students here whose life chances have been dramatically improved through the existence of institutions like London Met.

The tragic irony is that in the last year London Met has enthusiastically embraced the government’s vision for a marketised higher education system by outsourcing its services and slashing courses while cutting fees. That this compliance has only made London Met’s future more vulnerable is a stark reminder of why we need a properly funded education system - one that meets the needs of all young people, whether they are already here or are wishing to come from abroad.