Since when did the survival of London Met, or any other university, depend on their ability to control the UK’s borders?
The UK Border Agency’s decision to withdraw London Metropolitan University’s licence to accept non-EU students has meant the suspension of study and threat of deportation for 2,000 international students, and financial crisis for a university already struggling to stay afloat. The agency’s justification is London Met’s “systemic failure” to account for the immigration status of its international students. But why has the survival of a university, whose raison d’être is to educate, come to depend on its ability to control the UK’s borders?
One London Met lecturer has written anonymously claiming of his institution that: “This is not a university that is run well. The UK Border Agency basically says as much.” Is this what higher education has come to? That people allow an agency that has nothing to do with education to judge whether or not a university is “run well”. She/he hopes that the agency’s decision will mean the elimination of those students whose English is not up to scratch. Rather than cutting them loose, the solution to students struggling with English skills, whether home or international, is to provide them with extra support – difficult of course in a climate of budget cuts, but not impossible, and my own university is testament to this.
It is obscene that those students already in the UK at a well-established institution will be uprooted from their homes and have their legitimate expectation to complete their studies dashed.
The agency’s move has been criticised on a number of fronts, seen as part of a wider attack by the coalition government on education institutions already suffering the effects of hikes in tuition fees and cuts to public funding. A petition calls for an amnesty for the thousands of international students whose studies have been terminated, and urges that they be allowed to complete their studies while “the problems at London Met are addressed”. While an amnesty for these students is absolutely necessary, a fundamental perspective is missing from the debate: universities should never have been made to play the role of immigration and border control officials. The role of universities is to educate, not to police.
The sponsorship system devised by the border agency permits universities to accept international students on to their courses on condition that they enforce immigration controls. According to the agency, the system is based on the principle that “those who benefit most directly from migration … help to prevent the system being abused”. It seems fair to assume that the agency is alluding here to the universities reaping the economic benefits of international students through charging extortionate fees. But universities should not be in such a poorly funded condition that they have to economically exploit international students.
Of course the true benefit brought by international students is their contribution to the creation of a multicultural environment which enriches the learning experience and expands the horizons of all on campus. But rather than welcome these students, the message from a government fixated on immigration control, spurred on by anti-immigration groups keen to blame migrants for society’s ills, is to treat them as suspected scroungers or potential terrorists. Under-pressure university administrations insist lecturers police their classes to prevent those without a valid visa entering, monitor levels of “radicalism” among students, and take registers to record the attendance of international students even where attendance is not compulsory. Such discrimination in the classroom goes against the ethical principles and traditions of academia, sowing mistrust and corrupting the atmosphere within universities.
How convenient then for the government that the debate over the revocation of London Met’s sponsorship licence has skipped over the fundamental problem: that government policy treats international students as cash cows and turns universities and their staff into henchmen of its invidious immigration system.