London Met's Holloway Road campus.
Below: London Met students affected by the visas decision make their feelings clear yesterday. Inset: Max Watson, chairman of Unison branch
Published: 31 August, 2012
by PETER GRUNER
ISLINGTON politicians are seeking an urgent meeting with Home Secretary Theresa May following the decision to strip 2,700 foreign students at London Metropolitan University of their visas – with fears that it “threatens the existence of the university” with disastrous economic consequences for the borough.
The decision will cost the beleaguered institution – one of the biggest employers in Islington and already struggling financially – a further £36.5million a year in lost fees.
There are fears that it could destroy its reputation among foreign students – particularly from the emerging nations of India, China and Brazil where many British universities are seeking to expand their markets.
The decision by the UK Border Agency to take away the institution’s Highly Trusted Sponsor status means that 2,700 non-EU foreign students have 60 days to find a new university or leave the country without finishing their courses.
Although they make up just under 9 per cent of the university’s 31,000 students, they provide the lucrative backbone to its finances, paying full fees of £13,500 a year against the £7,000 paid by EU and UK students.
In 2011 London Met was named on a list of debt-ridden universities under threat of closure. Its financial woes began three years ago when its funding was cut due to arguments over student numbers and achievements, leading to the resignation of the entire board.
As a result the university was forced to cut 500 of its then 3,800 staff in order to pay back to the government tens of millions of pounds.
Since then there have been protests over cost-cutting measures such as the removal of 400 courses and the internationally renowned Women’s Library.
Yesterday both Islington North MP Jeremy Corbyn and Town Hall leader Catherine West wrote to Theresa May urging her to reverse the “disastrous” decision.
In a statement Mr Corbyn said the loss of foreign students would have a “devastating” impact.
“The very existence of LMU will be called into question as a major part of its income relies on overseas students,” he said.
In her letter to the Home Secretary Cllr West said: “The impact of this decision will be felt heavily across Islington and across London. Many LMU sites are in our borough and the decision will have very serious consequences for us.”
The Town Hall’s education chief Richard Watts accused the UK Border Agency of “pressing the nuclear button” on the institution’s finances – which could have a severe knock-on effect in the borough.
“More Islington residents go to London Met than any other university,” he said. “It is a major employer in the borough, it owns a lot of property and a lot of property is being developed throughout the borough in conjunction with London Met.
“A lot of the local economy – not just in the Holloway Road – is dependent on London Metropolitan University. Anything that is damaging to the university is damaging to Islington.”
Unions are also concerned that there could be further job cuts at the beleaguered university which has campuses in Holloway and Clerkenwell.
“This is now a ‘perfect storm’ at London Met but it was predictable and, in fact, preventable, but senior management were too busy working out how to privatise the university to take the necessary measures to avoid this catastrophe,” said Max Watson, chairman of London Met University’s Unison branch.
He added: “I thought morale couldn’t get any worse, but I was wrong.
“Part of the problem seems to be that management cut so many staff, including those who are responsible for gathering student data, that information on this issue is hard to find.
“But, rather than deal with the problem, the university management have spent all their time in secret meetings with private providers and outsourcing companies to find ways of privatising the university.”
A government taskforce has been set up with help from the NUS to advise students who may be affected.
The university’s Highly Trusted Status (HTS) was suspended last month while the UKBA examined alleged failings, preventing it from being allowed to recruit overseas students.
A statement posted on the university’s website read: “The implications of the revocation are hugely significant and far-reaching, and the university has already started to deal with these.
“It will be working very closely with the UKBA, Higher Education Funding Council for England, the NUS and its own students’ union.”
With morale at the university already at rock bottom, vice-chancellor Malcolm Gillies accused the UK Border Agency of spreading fear and uncertainty among foreign students.
Professor Gillies added: “For the last six weeks we have repeatedly tried to liaise with the UKBA to understand further their concerns, which seem to be focused on processes related to the legacy of previous management.
“Disappointingly, the UKBA has been unwilling to communicate with the university, despite the growing £10million-plus hole their action has already left on our balance sheet.”
A UKBA spokesman said: “London Metropolitan University’s licence to sponsor non-EU students has been revoked after it failed to address serious and systemic failings that were identified by the UK Border Agency six months ago.”
London Met has set up a helpline for worried students: +44 (0)20 7133 4141, and the UKBA has posted advice for students online.