Universities have bogus students shock

I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in [this casino]! (Captain Renault, Casablanca, 1942)

The UK Border Agency has finally acted to revoke London Metropolitan University’s “Highly Trusted Sponsor” status, which allowed them to grant student visas.

This is very tough luck on the genuine foreign students that happened to be doing a course there when the music stopped, and my sympathies are with them. But this system has been living on borrowed time for far too long. As far as I can make out, London Met is no better or worse than any others, and according to staff there who I’d tend to trust, has actually tightened up considerably after the first complaints and is probably less deserving of a foreclosure than most. There but for the grace of God go all the others.

Back in the late 1990’s the then New Labour government decided that everyone should have the chance to get a university education, so created a lot more university places by creating a lot more universities (and introduced student loans and tuition fees to pay for it). The snag is that tuition fees don’t cover the cost and the new universities don’t have their own income, so the only way to expand and prosper is to attract foreign students, whom you can charge what you like. Other than academic integrity, commercially:

  • There is no incentive to ensure that the students are pre-qualified (or even speak enough English to cope).
  • There is no incentive to ensure that students would benefit from the course.
  • There is no incentive to ensure standards are maintained (if you fail too many, they’ll go elsewhere).
  • There is no incentive to ensure that student’s paperwork is genuine.
  • There is no incentive to ensure that students actually attend the course.
  • There is an incentive to keep quiet, because there are academic jobs are on the line.

With a system where every incentive is to create abuses such as this, who can be surprised when they happen. Don’t forget, these universities are run as businesses with business managers – they’re not run by the academic staff.

I’d be very surprised if London Met was the only university to receive this attention in due course. It’s not that anyone deliberately set out to pull a fast one, but if the incentives are stacked the way they are then you’re going to get a culture of looking the other way.

The Border’s Agency investigation found that in a sample of 250 students at London Met, 25% had no valid visa, 56% had “attendance problems”, and 40% couldn’t speak English well enough to do such a course. But the same system also encourages universities to sign up domestic students and not fail too many, as this is the basis on which they’re funded. They’re paid for each student who completes the course (a lesser amount if they drop out), and students make a terrible fuss if they fail to pass and tell all their friends to avoid the place, reducing intake. If  standards are ever questioned, you’ll find plenty of academics willing to appear on camera to say otherwise, and what else could they do if they want to maintain the status quo (i.e. their jobs). But the incentive is to push standards lower.

It’s very frustrating for those working in higher education for fight against this tide, and ultimately it’s doing the country no good. It’s described as a great export earner – do we really want to be exporters of dodgy degrees? The UK Border Agency’s move is a good first step to stop the rot, but it seems to me that London Met is the scapegoat and what’s really needed is a good long look at the whole system starting at the top. This correct course of action isn’t likely to be a vote-winner with the students.


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