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The threatened deportation of 2,600 London Met students is an issue for the whole movement argues Des Freedman

 Students protest outside Downing Street Credit: ITNThe UK Border Agency’s decision to revoke the licence of London Metropolitan University to recruit and teach international students marks the latest stage of the government’s assault on higher education.

Some 2,600 students from non-EEA countries now face deportation for the crime of having chosen to study at a popular and multicultural institution, widely respected for its widening participation profile. This applies both to those on their way to London to start their degrees as well as those in their final year of study, perhaps only a dissertation away from a degree.

The UKBA claims that it has identified ‘serious and systemic failings’ concerning the University’s monitoring of language qualifications, immigration status and attendance and that, despite several warnings, London Met has failed to deal adequately with the problems. Yet, from what we can gather, the numbers involved are tiny and involve only a very small minority of international students.

If there are serious problems with checks, why should thousands of innocent students be penalised for the failure of the institution fully to carry out its responsibilities?

This is not, however, simply a question of systems and procedures. It is a political attack on the right of international students to study in the UK and is based on fundamentally discriminatory legislation – Tier 4 of the Points Based Immigration rules – which collectively treats students from outside the EEA as suspicious and ‘bogus’. It is part of a wider determination on the part of the government to drive down immigration numbers in the search of much-needed positive headlines.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the London Met announcement was made on the same day as the latest official migration statistics were published showing that net migration (at 216,000) is still way above the government’s declared intention to reduce it to tens, rather than hundreds, of thousands. And who forms the bulk of those coming to the UK? Students, of course, who make up some 232,000 of the total 566,000 coming to the UK.

But why are international students, most of whom have every intention to get a degree and return home, even counted as part of long-term immigration statistics – apart from the fact that it helps the government make its spurious argument about an immigration ‘crisis’? Indeed, the Institute of Public Policy Research produced a report earlier this year arguing that the government’s insistence on including students as part of official immigration figures was totally counter-productive and economically damaging.

Many people inside business and education are now furious with the government for pursuing what they see as a disastrous immigration policy, which will deter prospective international students. It jeopardises the approximately £5 billion that these students contribute to the economy.

For those of us who work in universities, international students should not be valued for their economic so much as their overall contribution in adding to the diversity of experiences that is vital for higher education. While the government treats international students as potentially ‘bogus’ and universities treat them as lucrative ‘cash cows’, we need to defend their rights to study freely without scapegoating them or threatening them with deportation.

Meanwhile, we need to make sure that the future of London Met’s international students, as well as the future of the institution itself, is secured in the face of the UKBA’s disastrous decision. As one signatory to a petition calling for an immediate amnesty in order to allow students to continue their studies put it, immigration minister Damian Green’s ‘cack-handed intervention threatens to undermine universities across the sector and has done more to bring UK higher education into disrepute than anything London Met may have done. There may well be issues to investigate here but there are other, better ways of dealing with the issue.’

This is a political attack and not a simple administrative failure. As another signatory to the petition declared, the UKBA’s decision ‘is a disproportionate sanction which has potentially catastrophic consequences for students who are bona fide and entirely innocent of any wrongdoing. It also threatens the integrity of a university whose accessibility to black and minority ethnic and working class students is second to none.’

London Met seems to be a guinea pig for a series of cost-cutting measures and privatisation attempts — the most recent of which involved the University threatening to offload the vast majority of its non-teaching operations to a private company in a £74 million deal — that may make it difficult to survive in the kind of marketised higher education system that the Tories are committed to.

This is the latest phase of the government’s assault on higher education and it needs to be revealed for what it is: a fierce attack on a popular educational institution and a totally counter-productive challenge to the rights of international students to study without fear of deportation.


Sign the petition calling for an immediate amnesty for international students at London Metropolitan University at: http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/amnesty-for-international-students-at-london-metropolit.html.

Des Freedman is secretary of Goldsmiths University and College Union (UCU), writing in a personal capacity

Tagged under: Education
Des Freedman

Des Freedman

Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communications in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of 'The Contradictions of Media Power' (Bloomsbury 2014), co-editor of 'The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance' (Pluto 2011), Vice-President of Goldsmiths UCU and former Chair of the Media Reform Coalition.

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