Now that the dust has started to settle on the initial decision to revoke London Metropolitan's international student licence, questions must be asked about the process. For the students to be told just three weeks before their courses were due to start that they would not be allowed to study at the university, only for that decision to then be temporarily revoked, is clearly far from ideal.
In terms of whether the initial decision was a correct one, we cannot yet know. Until the findings of the appeal are revealed it is unclear whether the UK Border Agency (UKBA) was justified in its actions. However, for this piece I am not overly concerned by the question of who is in the right, but rather the way in which it has been handled.
The very fact that we do not know is indicative. The situation at the moment is simply a case of one organisation's word against another's. UKBA claims the rules weren't adhered to, London Met denies this. However, it should surely never have reached this point. Before making their decision public, UKBA had the time to compile a body of irrefutable evidence that plainly backed up their version of events beyond doubt.
And yet, that evidence is obviously not there, or else a judge would not have allowed the university to appeal. Indeed, London Met claims to have counter-evidence, which "clearly shows on file-after-file that we were taking every reasonable measure we could to be compliant". The university's evidence was plainly as convincing as UKBA's evidence in the judge's eyes.
It is UKBA themselves who make the rules, and yet it appears as though they cannot provide the necessary evidence to convince a judge of their decision. That is not to say the evidence will not be found, but that it has not yet been by UKBA. And this surely is inexcusable. It leaves the whole process in confusion months and possibly years after a final decision should have been made.
If this system of decision followed by appeal becomes the norm then it benefits nobody. Both UKBA and the university have to spend precious time and resources on a lengthy legal case, whilst the students are left in a state of limbo for a whole academic year. For many of the students, this year will feel like a stay of execution, unsure whether they will be able to complete their studies at London Met or whether they'll have to start looking elsewhere, again.
Even if the appeal is rejected and UKBA's original decision is vindicated, that still does not excuse the way the process has been implemented. One of the main aims of the system is to protect international students coming to study in the UK, and yet the way that it has been carried out has done just about as much harm to those students as is possible. Indeed, as London Met has admitted, it is not just the decision that they feel let down by, but also by the "communication, timing and transparency" of it.
Surely, it cannot be beyond the realms of possibility that if UKBA feels a university is breaking the rules it can build a case against them to the point where it cannot be challenged. Equally, is it impossible for the university to then be informed that it has lost its Highly Trusted Status some time in October to December? This would give its current students the best part of a year to find a new university, as well as preventing new students from applying.
This would not only help the students, but ultimately also the university. It would allow the university to accept the decision, work hard for a year to rectify their mistakes, and then hopefully re-apply for its Highly Trusted Status in time for the next intake of students. The university would still be punished through not being able to accept international students for a year, but the impact to the students would be kept to a minimum. Surely the aim is to reform rather than punish for the sake of it?
This is imperative not just for the sake of individual universities, but for the reputation of British higher education on a global scale.
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