‘Seriously deficient’: or Whither London Met? or Where’s Willetts?
Last night the news broke at 10pm: the UK Border Agency (UKBA) confirmed the revocation of London Metropolitan University’s ‘highly trusted sponsor’ status. This means that London Met is no longer able bring in non-EU students into the UK to study under the ‘Tier 4’ visa scheme.
In fact, the move is more draconian in that such students currently studying at London Met will have their visas withdrawn: at least 2000 face deportation within 60 days of official notification, unless they can find another sponsor. Effectively they must find a place on another course at another institution.
This is the first ever revocation for a university, although two have previously been temporarily suspended from the scheme (several private and FE colleges have also had their licences withdrawn). Damien Green, Immigration Minister, told Radio 4 this morning that this monumental decision was justified owing to ‘seriously deficient’ practices at the university.
Ostensibly this is the culmination of a spat within government. The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) which has responsibility for higher education has been keen to promote the sector as one of the UK economy’s few export successes (to which fees from overseas students make up a large contribution). BIS has been lobbying with the support of the sector to have student numbers removed from the official migration statistics which are the responsibility of the Home Office ( in charge of the UKBA).
Theresa May, Home Secretary, is bound by David Cameron’s pledge to reduce net immigration to the ‘tens of thousands’. Of course, today was the day when the latest such figures were released. In the period covering the year to June 2012, the figures show that net immigration is down to 216 000 with student visas down by 30 per cent on the previous year.
May is a long way from hitting her key performance target which might go some way to explaining the use of the ‘nuclear option’.
That she and Green were allowed to do so at this time is baffling given that the government is meant to be making the economy its priority. The failure to support BIS indicates again that political narrative is instead making the running. Blanket condemnation from other universities about the precedent this sets and the reputational damage it does to the UK abroad appears to cut no ice.
The ‘Task Force’ announced by a spokesman this morning will be led by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) and Universities UK will concentrate on helping ‘genuine’ affected students find new courses at short notice. The difficulties here should not be underestimated.
Vince Cable and David Willetts have lost this battle. The latter is apparently on holiday, but this is further evidence of his weakness as a political operator.
But what of London Met? UKBA suspended its sponsor status in July and had been auditing its records since. It should be emphasised that this is a matter of administration: the paperwork was not in order. UKBA claims that in a random selection of student records, 60 per cent were found to have problems. Green outlined three types of failure on the radio this morning:
- In a sample of 101 files, a quarter of students did not appear to have leave to remain in the country – the visa copied in the files had expired;
- Not every file held evidence to show that the student had met a mandatory standard of English;
- ‘More than half of the student records’ lacked an up-to-date register of attendance to show that they had been to lectures and seminars.
When interviewed at lunchtime, Malcolm Gillies, London Met’s vice-chancellor, seemed to indicate that these findings were unexpected and that he had only received a notification letter from UKBA with no accompanying report setting out the evidence above. He did not rule out the possibility of judicial review.
Administration is the leitmotif of recent travails at London Met. Its disastrous failures in record-keeping between 2005/06 and 2007/08 saw it over-report the number of home and EU students attending the institution. Hefce demanded the return of £35million in grants. London Met’s last published financial statement (for 2010/11) stated that £30million of that was still unpaid making Hefce LondonMet’s largest creditor.
Last year it was further fined £6million for over-recruitment in the 2011 application process – distancing himself from his own administrators, Gillies told Times Higher Education that he had been holiday during last summer’s Clearing.
Only last week, exaro news broke the story that London Met had issued a tender for a management consultancy to take over the running of all university activities besides teaching and the vice-chancellor himself. Perhaps this was Gillies’s intended solution to the problems? The tender was due to be awarded imminently. Unison representatives report a casual management attitude to addressing the audit.
To offer a different perspective on all this: perhaps Gillies did not anticipate any heavy sanction because he believed the experiment he was running at London Met had the government’s approval? He is trying to pioneer a cost-cutting ‘shared services’ scheme, he has slashed courses and has set fees far below what other London institutions consider feasible (the lowest in the country on some measures). A former advisor to Willetts, Jonathan Woodhead, sits in Gillies’ office, while the Universities Minister himself apparently phoned up after London Met’s fees announcement to congratulate Gillies for ‘having the courage of his convictions’.
Posters invite applicants to ‘Join the Value Revolution’; even in the midst of his interview with Martha Kearney on Radio 4’s The World at One, Gillies managed to slip out London Met’s strapline: Affordable Quality Education.
This experiment now looks to be foundering and Willetts is nowhere to be seen.
Overseas tuition fees accounted for £22.5million of revenues in 2010/11 – 15 per cent of London Met’s annual income. That’s a big gap to fill, though presumably Hefce would hold off calling in its debts for the time being. Although it is eligible to reapply for trusted sponsor status in six months, reputational damage combined with a huge loss of income presents the governors with some big decisions about the future.
Undoubtedly London Met needs some emergency borrowing in the short-term, but Gillies would not rule out the possibility of closure when questioned by Kearney earlier today.
Last year’s HE white paper made it clear that the government was no longer prepared to act as the backer of last resort: ‘it is not the Government’s role to protect an unviable institution’ (§6.9b)’.
Merger is the normal alternative avenue but London Met is already the product of one and there’s no obvious candidate partner in what we used to know as the publicly-funded sector.
The current political climate means we should be watching for private sector entry or expansion instead. I have suggested that London Met’s mooted shared services company resembled a model for buyout. We could see a different form of acquisition floated in the coming weeks. London Met is a company limited by guarantee which means no primary legislation or government approval would be needed for such a development. (By the way, did you read the disinterested comment piece on London Met in last week’s Guardian from the chief executive of BPP Holdings, a subsidiary of Apollo Global?)
Individuals are going to bear the brunt of this decision, but the political stakes may get higher.
To wrap up, UKBA should never have been granted the power to set in motion events with such impact on students and staff, never mind the potential damage to prospective applicants to UK institutions. The repercussions go far beyond the fines levied for previous administrative failings and point to a political failure on the part of Cameron. Why was no one able to make the case for alternative measures? What does that say about the state of the Coalition when even the conservatives aren’t being made to pull together?