London Met matters

Jill Rutter writes on migration issues and from 2001-2006 was a senior lecturer in education at London Metropolitan University

On Friday 21st September lawyers representing London Metropolitan University will challenge the decision of the UK Border Agency to revoke its Highly Trusted Sponsor. This decision prevented it from recruiting students from outside the European Union and gave existing international students just 60 days to find another higher education institution to sponsor their studies.  The UK Border Agency alleges that when it sampled files of London Met students a high proportion had no valid visas to be in the UK, had attendance problems or poor English, all indicative of lax monitoring systems.  London Met vigorously denies these claims and has launched a legal challenge.  Whatever its outcome, Friday’s case is important, not just in relation to migration policy, but higher education policy more broadly.

London Met has a student population of about 28,000, making it one of the largest non-collegiate universities in the UK. It was formed as a result of a 2002 merger between London Guildhall University and the University of North London, both former polytechnics that became universities in 1992.  Its present vice-chancellor is Malcolm Gillies and the university secretary is Jonathan Woodhead, formerly an advisor to David Willetts, Minister for Higher Education.
The university’s finances have always been fragile, and many commentators believe that a negative outcome on Friday could plunge the university into bankruptcy and potential takeover by a private university, supported by private equity. This would be unprecedented in the UK higher education sector, although in line with the present Government’s aims of supporting greater private sector involvement in delivering higher education. London Met matters in this respect.

Like almost all UK higher education institutions, the proportion of international students at London Met grew significantly. In 2011 26 per cent of London Met’s student population were international students – EU and non EU.

Overall, in the UK, the numbers of non-EU students given permission to enter the UK grew steadily between 2000 and 2009, but has dipped since then, as has the UK’s share of the international student market. In 2005 some 207, 400 student visas were issued. This grew to 341,100 in 2009, but has dipped since then to 322,800 in 2011.

However, student migration remains the largest category of non-EU migration to the UK, over ten times as many students come to the UK every year as do asylum-seekers.

Anti-migration commentators, for example, Migration Watch, attribute the increase in non-EU student numbers to ‘pull’ factors such as giving non-EU students the right to work part-time in UK, lax border control and the operation of ‘bogus’ colleges.

However, there are other reasons that non-EU student numbers have increased. Non-EU students have plugged financial gaps in many universities. Online application processes made overseas recruitment easier. The burgeoning and increasingly prosperous middle class of India and China presented a growing market, particularly for universities such as London Met. And many universities have opened overseas offices, or employed recruitment agents.

The previous Labour government introduced some reforms to student migration, with the roll-out of a points based system for students and the licensing of educational institutions. These reforms aimed to prevent abuse of the system, but to support the recruitment of genuine students. The Coalition Government has followed a less coherent policy direction.

On the one hand the Government has a migration ‘cap’ and aim to reduce net migration which can only be achieved through a significant reduction in student numbers. On the other hand, higher education institutions remain very dependent on the fee income of overseas students.

All the debate about net migration has obscured some broader issues of higher education policy. There has been very little debate within the university sector about how much international student migration is desirable. Do universities want to continue overseas recruitment onwards and upwards, or should there be a limit?

If the proportions of international students are high are there impacts on the overall student population, on teaching methods, on local communities, or on the cohesiveness of institutions? How can universities maximise the benefits of an international student population, yet minimise any negative impacts?

These are debates that leaders in the higher education sector seem unwilling to have. Neither the Browne review of educational funding, nor the 2011 higher education white paper examine international student recruitment in any depth at all. The London Met debacle presents the opportunity for a more informed debate about international student recruitment in universities and in this respect it matters too.

The university sector, as well as some migration experts, argue that the way that this quandary could be resolved would be to remove non-EU students from the calculations of levels of net migration. They argue that Home Office research shows that about 85 per cent of non-EU students end up leaving the UK within five years so they do not end up contributing to long-term net migration. Last week, David Willetts made a concession in this direction by requesting that student numbers be disaggregated from net migration calculations, to ensure a better understanding of student migration flows.

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