Monday, 3 September 2012

Met musings

The London metropolitan University has been in the news this week having been stripped of its "highly trusted sponsor" status meaning it can no longer recruit students from outside of Europe and more importantly that the 2,700 international students currently enrolled, be they pre-sessional students about to start courses,undergraduates halfway through their courses, or PHD candidates, who will have a PHD supervisor they have specifically chosen to study under,  must all find a new place to study in three months or face being labelled illegal immigrants and deported.  If you're not familiar with the terrifying and complex workings of international student visa regulations it might all seem a bit confusing.  So what exactly has happened to the Met?  

Basically, all Universities in the UK are awarded a visa sponsor licence and the level of the status defines what kind of visa they can issue.  For example the "highly trusted sponsor" ranking is the most desirable, and this means institutions can issue offers to students which will allow them to apply for tier 4 visas.  The system is complex and constantly changing, and is an attempt to stop questionable language schools who are basically just visa factories masquerading as language schools. 

This is big news as it's the first time the UKBA has actually revoked a university's HTS licence.  So what has the Met done to provoke the wrath of the UKBA?  Well the Guardian reports that:

The government revoked London Metropolitan University's highly trusted status (HTS) for sponsoring international students after it found more than a quarter of a sample of students studying at the university did not have permission to stay in the country.

Details are quite sketchy but it seems that the following three charges are being levelled at the Met:
  • Student visa information was not known/incorrect
  • Student attendance records were not correctly kept
  • Information regarding language tests was somehow not adequate
 
Now this is all very vague and we won't know more detail until later, -if ever.  But we can speculate  a little about some of these claims.  The first one, if true, is  very serious. the fact that a random sample of students turned up more than 25% lacking the appropriate visa is shocking.   Visa regulations are a pain and at my institution a source of headaches. We chase up paperwork and work hard to make sure every single one of the  international  students is here legally.  If the reports are correct then the Met has been incredibly irresponsible.  One or two students turning up with a mistake in their visa is perhaps understandable, but 25% of a random sampling is unbelievable.
 
The second charge is a bit less clear.  According to the Guardian, student attendance of lectures was not being monitored adequately but it's not clear if this means during the English courses or during the actual lectures themselves.  I'm not aware of any HE institute which monitors students' attendance of lectures or how you would go about doing that.  We do monitor attendance of the pre-sessional English courses very closely though, registers are taken daily and checked by the course director and students who miss class are investigated and cautioned.  If the Met has been failing in this regard, it's harder to have sympathy for them and according to the BBC there were problems with 142 out of 250 students examined. 
 
 
As for the final charge, this is a little complex.  Sindhyar talpur writes:

every student has to show their English proficiency not only to the University they are to attend, but also to UKBA. Standard proficiency tests like IELTS are taken, and students have to pass them to a higher level before they could even get admission. It is thus, difficult to understand how University failed to live up to the standard required for English, since the UKBA itself verifies English proficiency, and even conduct interviews with the candidates

This shows a slight misunderstanding of how the system actually works.  Students are often required to get around 6.5 in IELTS to enter university courses.  However, Pre-sessional courses offer students, who fall short, the chance to reach a "notional" 6.5 after a period of intense study.  In order for this system to be accountable the students must take test which are comparable to IELTS in order to show they have reached an adequate level of English to cope with university courses.  Without this check in place, universities could "game" the system and pass students regardless of their ability.  In the case of the Met it seems that English language assessment was not adequate or was missing altogether.  Again I can only compare with my institute where assessment is carried out, teachers are standardised, work is second and often third marked and then kept until those students graduate.  As I noted, details are sketchy, but if the Met is falling short of these standards, as one of its lecturers allegedly claims it is,  then it deserves to be punished. 
 
 

Students and UKBA


If the claims are true the Met should be punished but none of this is the fault of the students.  I hope that the 2,700 odd students can find places in other institutes and with the rush to recruit from the profitable international sector, and the drop in home student going to university some of them should have no problem finding a place.  It is disruptive for those students who are mid-way through a course, have friends or have rented accommodation, though one student interviewed by the Guardian noted that changing universities wasn't such a bad thing because the Met's "organisation and facilities are so poor".   

It is also heart-breaking for students who have yet to come to the UK but who have now been told to stay at home.  The visa application process takes at least two weeks and is expensive.  It would be tough for students to find another institution, receive an offer and get a visa in time for new courses.  Another problem is that the Met offers cheaper courses than many other universities, so students who do change may end up paying more; though on a brighter note Regents College has offered to take 200 students and provide scholarships to make up the difference in costs.   
 
The Met may have made mistakes but the UKBA doesn't come out of this looking great either.  The leaking of the decision to The Times newspaper certainly seems like a very poor decision.  The timing isn't ideal either but is there is a perfect time to make an announcement like this?  It's not the first time that the UKBA has caused problems for HE institutions.  Last year they announced that students must have adequate IELTS scores for all four skills.  Previously a student could get an overall IELTS score of say 5, with a 6 in reading and a 4 in writing.  The rule change was fine, but the fact that the UKBA instituted it after offers had been sent out to students with very little warning left a lot of universities  and students unhappy.  Students who had previously reached the required level and been accepted were then told that they had to retake the IELTS exam or they wouldn't be allowed entry. 

Similarly with the Met decision, the way in which the action has been carried out is not ideal.  It's hard to understand why the met couldn't allow present students to finish but ban the recruiting of new students.  Maybe finding so many student errors convinced the UKBA that the problem was fairly widespread.  But this still isn't much solace for students who were at the Met perfectly legally, went to class and could speak English.  These students will now be thrown into turmoil and some of them will even be forced to leave.  So whereas the Met may have significant failings the UKBA has (yet again) hardly covered itself in glory.

There are some who suspect that this might be a ploy, by the coalition, to reduce immigrant numbers but this seems unlikely as the loss of 2,700 is a drop in the ocean of immigration.  The UKBA tier 4 visa does constantly change and is a pain for institutions and students alike.  Making entry increasingly difficult seems rather foolish as international students generally come to the UK, give us huge sums of money (about £12.5 Billion annually) and then go home after one year.  Keith Vaz, notes:
Students are not migrants. They come from all over the world to study here, contributing to the economy both through payment of fees and wider spending. Whilst we are right to seek to eliminate bogus colleges and bogus students, we need to ensure that we continue to attract the brightest and the best. The Government’s policy ought to be evidence-based. Generating policy based on flawed evidence could cripple the UK education sector. In the case of international students this could mean a significant revenue and reputational loss to the UK
However if there is a seret policy to reduce student numbers then it seems to be "working" with a drop in the number of international students by around 21%.  Another possibility is that, as it's very unlikely it was functioning as a "visa factory", the Met is merely being made an example of by the UKBA as a warning to other universities to make sure their houses are in order.  But, if the reports about the Met are true, and if they really did fail to comply despite being given six months in which to do so, then we really don't need to search for a grand conspiracy. 

The Met's colourful history

The MET was established in 2002 and is currently ranked as bottom or near bottom among UK universities. 
Guardian 2013 University Ranking
 

This isn't the first time that the MET has courted controversy. Right before the 2008 Beijing Olympics the Met awarded the Dalai Lama (not massively popular in China) with an honorary doctorate in philosophy. At the time the Met had around 450 mainland Chinese students and so this decision, taken when it was, seems to show incredibly poor judgement, economically at least. The Met later issued an apology after suggestions that Chinese students and agents might boycott the university.

It's also not the first time the Met, in it's short history, has run into financial trouble.  In 2008 incorrect reporting of student numbers, which meant the university had been receiving extra funding for years, was uncovered and lead to the threat of funding being withdrawn and 500 members of staff losing their jobs.  An interesting factoid for EFLers is that Ian Lebeau and Simon Kent, authors of the popular "language leader" series both work there.


The future

If the Met is unable to overturn this decision (and possibly even if they are able to) things do not look very encouraging.  Not only will their finances take a £20 million hit but the reputational damage will have long term implications for its ability to recruit overseas students.  The recruitment offices in India have already closed down and any student who applies in the future will surely have a nagging doubt in their mind about the institution's viability.  Some people have suggested that this decision will damage the UK's image abroad and affect future enrolement but I have my doubts about this.  Students come to the UK not only to improve their English but often also because they believe the education offered here is of a certain quality.  Assuming the reports about the Met's failings are correct, the decision would probably be seen as a positive move.  The UKBA's continuing unapologetically cack-handed approach to visa policy and it's handling of this case are infintely more likely to damage the UK's image abroad.    





 


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