As I write, the start of new academic years at universities up and down Britain are just three weeks away. 25 days to be precise. And yet, London Metropolitan University and the thousands of international students attached to it are still waiting to hear from the UK Border Agency whether or not their new terms are going to start at all.
After suspending London Met's student visa licence over a month ago, UKBA are yet to make a final decision on whether to reinstate it or permanently revoke it. This has left every single one of the existing and future non-EU students studying at the university in a state of limbo, unsure whether they will have a place on a course come September.
The idea of revoking the licenses of universities taking liberties with international students' education and student visas is one that must be enforced (not that I am saying London Met is guilty of this). It is vital that UK universities maintain the highest standards they can in regards to non-EU students, and global reputation within British higher education is paramount.
However, the way that the London Met case has been dealt with is verging on the farcical. It is ridiculous that a final decision has still not been made so close to the start of term. This should have been a decision made months ago- before the university even began to accept applicants for the coming academic year. Furthermore, the fact that the news is coming out through the media, surrounded by rumour and hearsay is clearly far from ideal.
At the end of the day, it is the students who are the most important concern to consider, and it is them who are suffering most. New students who have gained a place at London Met find themselves in an impossible situation. After preparing to study in London for months they have suddenly been told their place is not guaranteed. What's more, they cannot even begin to apply for last minute places at other universities whilst the final decision remains unmade.
However, those in an even worse situation are the existing London Met students who are now facing the possibility of having completed two years of study, only to find that they no longer have a university place or even a visa for their third year. The effort and expense of coming from another country to study in London is huge, and to be told that you may not even leave with a degree at the end of it would be devastating.
You have to question the point of preventing existing students from returning. Yes, universities need to be punished if they are abusing the system (again, not that London Met is), but surely stopping them from recruiting further international students is punishment enough. To then prevent their existing students from returning, especially at this late point in time begins to look like a punishment felt more keenly by the students themselves.
UK Higher Education's Reputation
Moreover, this couldn't have happened at a worse time. British higher education has been coming under fire from all angles for the last year or two, and its international reputation is beginning to be questioned for the first time in decades.
There is already a growing perception that with the recent visa changes, international students are less welcome to Britain than previously. A news story about thousands of non-EU students losing places and visas to study in the UK at the last minute is certainly not going to help that perception.
Ultimately, the most important concern of the whole process is to minimise the impact on the students themselves, and unfortunately, the way the London Met case has been carried out has achieved exactly the opposite result.