So last week, London Met university had their licence to act as a sponsor for overseas students revoked, so it can't teach its existing 2,600 non-EU students, or get new ones. This is unprecedented, and as well as being obviously distressing for those students, will send a loud message around the world about the UK's openness to overseas students.
I think there are three interpretations as to why it occurred:
LMUea culpa – it's all LMU's fault, they've been playing fast and loose with the immigration system and have been caught out. I'm sure there will be evidence of wrongdoing, indeed I would suggest the Government has been waiting for such a case where there is unarguable evidence, so it can take such action. But even if we accept that LMU are at fault, the reaction seems way out of proportion. A warning, a suspension, a fine would have all been reasonable – but revoking it and causing such distress seems a clearly targeted action to create publicity. Which brings me onto my next two options.
Sinister pressure – it was not the result of a direct order or intervention, but rather the outcome of pressure created by Government. As this piece points out, Teresa May is under pressure to hit targets for reducing migration, and student visas are perceived (incorrectly as I understand the process) to be an easy option. It is therefore part of playing to the home crowd Tories to be seen to be taking a firm stance. There is undoubtedly something in this, and combined with an element of dodgy behaviour at LMU it may be sufficient as an explanation. But I want to consider a third option also.
Conspiracy theory – John Naughton reminds us that "Whenever someone intelligent seems to be behaving oddly, the hypothesis has to be that they know what they’re doing and that you simply haven’t figured it out." Let's assume people in the coalition aren't stupid (yes, I'm not sure about Gove either, but let's go with it). On the face of it, the LMU decision is stupid. It is over the top, and will cause damage to the sector, when that sector is one of your primary exports. In times of financial crisis you would do everything possible to support such a sector, not undermine it wouldn't you? So, taking John's reasoning, this must mean we haven't figured out what they're doing.
Which heralds in the conspiracy theory. A while ago I blogged that higher education in the UK felt not just like any sector in a crisis, but one which was being deliberately targeted. In that post I was highlighting how the student loan scheme, combined with student number control would damage universities. If we give our conspiracy theory free rein, then having undermined the financial basis for the domestic market, the LMU debacle begins to look like the next stage in this plan, namely to undermine the overseas market.
Why then would the Government deliberately seek to destabilise an industry? The answer would be that it seeks to gain from that destabilisation. Having seen the problems it encountered by trying to reform the health system through due process and passing legislation, it doesn't want a repeat of this protracted and damaging scenario. A better approach is one of stealth – by financially undermining the existing structures, many universities will go to the wall. This will leave room for the private universities, which they have already made warm noises about (and remember, student number control doesn't apply to these).
By these commando tactics, the Government could achieve a radically different higher education model, with the high brand universities remaining intact, and the rest of the market provision from private universities, which fits better with a conservative free market model. And all without having a single debate in the House of Commons, or attracting any negative headlines.
Now, I'm not really one for conspiracy theories, and maybe it is a bit far-fetched. A combination of my first two explanations is more realistic. But, if the conspiracy theory is true, I'll make the following predictions:
- We'll see more universities lose their sponsorship licence, or more likely, a 'toughening up' of the student visa process to continue to make the UK less attractive.
- Student number control and capping of fees will be used strongly and undermine some universities
- A piece of legislation favourable to private universities will be slipped through on the back of another bill.
- Up to 10 unis will go to the wall and others will retract significantly.
- Unis will be encouraged to partner with private providers.
Of course, if the conspiracy theory is true, then the stance universities & VCs take towards the Government, which has largely been one of cooperation, should change drastically. Just to emphasise, I don't say it is true, but if we see my five predictions above begin to come true, then we should be suspicious. Of course, by then it might be too late.