London Met university has lost its state licence to sponsor visa applications by non-EU students: under the system, the government waived its duty to scrutinise applications on the understanding that the university would do the work, a scheme disguised as a streamlined service to students and institutions. Essentially, this means it can't recruit any more, and every single one of its current 3000 extra-EU students will be deported, because Borders Agency checks revealed that 25% of them had no leave to remain here, an unspecified proportion do not have sufficiently good English to manage a course, and the university hasn't been tracking lecture attendance.
The fear is that the university system is being exploited as a soft way to immigrate into the UK - sign up for a course, then melt away. I suspect it's not that much of a problem, especially at university level. These students are paying £13,000 per year for their degrees, and there are cheaper ways to get here. No doubt there's some abuse, but not too much.
The universities are in a difficult position: overseas students' fees subsidise those of the home students, though of course the new regime in which the home student takes on a lifetime of debt may alter the ratios a little. I don't suppose there's a university that looks too closely at their overseas recruitment procedures. We all know that in early September, we welcome hundreds of students with IELTS Level 6 English proficiency courses who can hardly string a sentence together. Someone's passing these tests, and it's not always the student sitting in front of us. Usually they're quite intelligent enough to pick up enough English to get through the course, and there's no benefit to prying too closely. Quite frankly, we need the money, and the recruitment agents have no incentive to fail people at their end.
More widely, I resent being turned into either a salesman for an educational 'product', or into a border guard. London Met wouldn't have this problem if the state took its own responsibilities seriously. Visa sponsorship (which applies in limited numbers to staff too: I've twice had to pressure the university on behalf of colleagues faced with deportation) was sold to universities as a way of making international recruitment easier in the pursuit of UK Degrees Plc. Then the tabloid sensibilities of the anti-immigration lobby took over and we're suddenly expected to police these students - to track their visa status and march them into our offices if they've missed a lecture. It's a classic case of market forces meeting neoliberal, outsourcing state ideology.
My home and EU students don't have to attend lectures compulsorily. It would be better for most of them if they did, but they have to be given the chance to work independently, or to fail. My own lecturers made this clear in lecture 1, first year: turn up, or don't turn up, they said - managing your own development is part of being an adult. I try to understand the myriad causes behind non-attendance, and tailor my support according to the student's position. Someone juggling jobs, children and study gets support. Someone too stoned to attend who suddenly demands all my time when panic sets in gets rather less sympathy. But in neither case do I feel the hand of the state on my shoulder. I deeply resent being told that my class registers (which I keep so that I can spot patterns of attendance/non-attendance) form part of the security state's defence against the Foreign Hordes (especially as the UK's history is largely one of ignoring everybody else's borders).
There's fault on all sides. There are some fraudulent enrolments. There are corrupt recruitment agents, paid on commission and running a neat sideline in forging test scores or providing skilled linguists to pass tests, and there are universities forced to marketise and which therefore have no incentive to look to closely, allied with a natural and admirable reluctance to become an outsourced arm of the state's shambolic immigration agencies.
In any case, this crackdown won't work: those hardworking students who turn up to lectures will politely, if resentfully, leave the country when the letter comes - careers and educations wrecked. Those who were gaming the system will have already disappeared. The result will be injustice to individuals and a worldwide recognition that the British approach consists of hypocrisy, high-handedness and willingness to pander to newspaper headlines. It'll look like something has been done, but it won't be the right thing, on closer inspection. Where will all those potential students go? Elsewhere, and we'll be all the poorer for it.
(PS: I don't have much sympathy for LMU as an institution: this is the university which wants to outsource most of its activities and transfer its staff to some dodgy subsidiary company).