Things I don’t understand about what’s gone on at London Met…

This week Damian Green gave three reasons for the withdrawal of Highly Trusted Sponsor Status from London Met.

First, he said that during the UK Border Agency (UKBA) audit, a quarter of the students sampled were studying without leave to remain in the UK. So (many thanks to Dominic Casciani at the BBC for actual numbers), that’s 26 out of 101 without a valid visa.

I think this can only mean one of two things. It might mean that London Met has failed to check and keep a copy of the students’ passports, biometric residence permits or UK immigration status documents (one of duties of a Tier 4 sponsor). If the minister meant this, I assume he would have said it though, rather than saying a quarter of the students in the sample are illegally resident.

If he meant what he said, I’m a bit baffled. It’s not London Met that issues visas and controls the border, it’s the UK government. So either UKBA failed to stop these students entering the UK illegally, in which case it seems a bit mean to make London Met carry all the blame, or the students were legally resident in the UK, their leave to remain ran out and UKBA failed to deport them (in fairness London Met also failed to report them to UKBA at point of attempted enrolment).

The second reason was that many of the students didn’t reach the required standard of English to study in the UK. On this point, 50 certificates were sampled, of which 20 failed to evidence that the students’ English had been properly tested. The third reason was that the university could not demonstrate students were attending classes regularly (140 out of 250 students in the sample failed to meet this standard).

Taken together, the language and attendance issues create the impression that these are people who aren’t capable of completing the course of study they enrolled for and/or aren’t attending classes because they only enrolled so they could get jobs. Perhaps that impression is absolutely right.

But ‘no evidence of proper testing’ of language skills doesn’t necessarily mean the student doesn’t have them, just as (sadly) having a properly completed test and certificate doesn’t always mean a student *does* have the necessary language skills. And not attending classes ‘regularly’ (or your lecturer not taking an accurate register ‘regularly’) doesn’t mean you aren’t handing in coursework and doing just fine. Without getting too personal, I like many people, am living proof of the second proposition.

So I looked at some other sources of information about London Met.

In November of 2010, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education audited London Met looking at academic standards and quality of teaching. It gave the institution a clean bill of health on both fronts, saying that confidence can reasonably be placed in the soundness of the institution’s present and likely future management of the academic standards of its awards’ and that ‘confidence can reasonably be placed in the soundness of the institution’s present and likely future management of the quality of the learning opportunities available to students’.

So in 2010, despite heavy funding cuts and job losses the year before, the academic and teaching standards being set for a London Met degree looked right to the QAA. I’m assuming this means that if they were enrolling large numbers of people with inadequate language skills, they weren’t graduating them (or at least weren’t doing that any more than comparable institutions).

If the standards were right, I wondered whether the drop-out rates looked unusually high as a consequence of all of these ‘bogus’ students disappearing into the labour market.

The most recent data on London Met from the Higher Education Statistics Agency shows drop out rates for both young and mature entrants that are higher than the relevant benchmarks (17.6% of young students drop out after a year, 11.1% is the benchmark, 16.2% of older students drop out when 13.9% is the benchmark). But this is nowhere near the highest drop out rate, nor is it the biggest percentage gap between an institution’s actual drop out rate and the benchmark.

Taken overall, the idea that London Met is a rogue institution in the university sector operating a money making immigration scam seems a little far fetched.

Why should we care about this? Like Damian Green, I’ve got three reasons.

Firstly, it bugs me that I don’t understand it. This is possibly (probably) just me being stupid or ignorant, but something this important is something I think we should all understand clearly.

Secondly, because thousands of legally resident and legitimate students who have already spent thousands of pounds (as well as time and effort) on a UK education are at risk of not being able to complete their course of study. Whatever the failings of the institution (clearly these were many and very serious) these people have done nothing wrong, and are facing a lot of uncertainty.

And third? It’s the economy stupid. There is a danger that this damages the UK higher education system’s brand. Good quality education is one of the UK’s most competitive exports and the sector’s value is projected to grow at 4% per annum. Right now we are in a double dip recession and we need all the help we can get.


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