Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Glimmer of hope for London Met Uni?

Just seen a couple of interesting articles in Red Pepper about the recent crisis at my former employer's- London Metropolitan University (LMU), that I covered in previous blog posts this August and September

The articles are by Andrew McGettigan, and Max Watson from Unison (the union for support staff at LondonMet), and explore the context behind the decision by the UK Border Agency to revoke LMU's licence to sponsor non-EU students, as well as the currently successful campaign against the proposed privatisation of services at LondonMet. It seems that rather than being linked purely to historical problems, as the current Vice Chancellor (Malcolm Gillies) has insinuated, there are also things that have happened on his watch  that relate to this decision. In April 2012, the UKBA gave permission for London Met to to offer degrees on the behalf of the private London School of Business and Finance (which could not issue its own degrees) in a deal rumoured to be worth c. £5m per annum. However, in May 2012, the UKBA began investigating this contract with LSBF, leading to the decision in August to revoke London Met's licence to recruit foreign students.

There are also rumours of divisions within government over this issue, as it appears that Theresa May the Home Secretary took the decision to revoke the licence, rather than it being an ‘operational decision’ by the UKBA. This decision may also relate to wider pressure from the political right to reduce net migration in the UK, which may have over-ruled the the Universities Minister David Willetts in this matter, who may be less keen on making it harder for foreign students to enter the UK. When the increase in tuition fees was first announced by Willetts, he stated that he did not expect all Universities to charge the maximum £9000 pa fee, and that the market would decide a wide range of possible fees. However, most Universities realised they could not afford to do anything except charge the maximum if they were to continue providing the quality of education expected from them. Nevertheless, LondonMet decided to embrace this market-based approach to fees, offering a range of fees starting at £4500 for foundation courses all the way up to the maximum for some courses, with an average of £6850. This attracted criticism from the unions that it would inevitably mean a drop in educational standards or the cutting of unprofitable courses.   

When I was at LondonMet, there were rumours of possible links between government education officials and senior management at LondonMet, which were fuelled in 2010 by the appointment of Jonathan Woodhead (a senior adviser to David Willetts) on a £75,000 pa contract as executive officer.  However, any notions that they would be rewarded for cosying up to Willett's reforms and embracing the new market-based approach to fees were dispelled by the UKBA decision last August. It is also suspected that the current mangement's focus on pursuing the proposed privatisation of services at LondonMet meant they failed to notice the looming crisis with the UKBA.

How this issue will develop is unclear, and LondonMet is not out of danger yet, but the fact that management have backed down in their plan to privatise all non-academic staff is a faint glimmer of hope, and will hopefully encourage the staff and students to cope with the challenges they still face.  

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