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London Met’s visa curb is at the heart of the government’s market experiment | Michael Chessum

Category : Business

The focus is on creating an education market – where private providers can operate and public universities can go bust

Almost a month after the UK Border Agency announced that it was revoking London Metropolitan University’s right to award visas to international students, the high court has intervened to give a temporary reprieve to some of its students. However, the move by the UKBA still ultimately threatens thousands of students with deportation, along with the future viability of London Met as a public entity.

The past few weeks have demonstrated both that a serious and concerted campaign is capable of delivering results, and that the government has always been more interested in pursuing its ideological agenda in higher education than in protecting students – effectively using London Met as test case in its market experiment.

While London Met and the National Union of Students were launching legal battles to keep students at the institution, private colleges have been circling around, running open days in the hope of taking displaced students, and the universities minister, David Willetts, last week announced a package of £2m in hardship funds for “legitimate students” affected by the situation.

Far from being a cause for celebration, these moves by the government represent the latest in a cynically presented official narrative around the London Met case: that the government, and the set of private providers now swarming around London Met, are working to alleviate the situation for students left stranded by the incompetence of the university’s management. The truth is that the government is exploiting the situation at London Met in order to further its own objectives.

London Met is already at the heart of the coalition’s experiment, in which massive cuts to public teaching grants are forcing institutions to seek private income streams. Having implemented a 70% cut to its courses in 2011, including the loss of whole departments such as history and philosophy, the university’s management announced last month that it would seek a large-scale privatisation deal – essentially a corporate buyout of much of its central services.

The essential theme of the higher education white paper, much of which is now being brought into effect without a vote in parliament, was the creation of a market – with private providers allowed to operate, and public universities allowed to go to the wall if they cannot make ends meet. The social consequences of this project will be dire: it is precisely the universities that working-class students rely on that will be forced to merge, or even to close entirely.

Like almost all higher education institutions, London Met has come increasingly to rely on international students, whose fees are uncapped. Without this income the university will struggle to survive, and, predictably, the government’s new approach to the crisis does nothing to address the insolvency that London Met faces as a result of the UKBA’s decision. Instead, Willetts is focused on moving London Met’s international students on to other institutions, while “protecting Britain’s reputation” in the global higher education market.

The government’s emphasis on making Britain an appealing destination for international students goes beyond the poor taste of viewing people, and their contributions to academia and society, as cash cows and cogs in a market mechanism. It is also dishonest and cynical: the situation at London Met is in large part a product of an increasingly draconian set of visa and immigration restrictions now being used by the Home Office to “send a message” about “bogus students.”

Over the past few years international students have faced repeated attacks on their ability to study and work in the UK – as well as paying increasingly astronomical fees, they are required to register at police stations, carry biometric ID and to have their attendance monitored constantly by their institution and the UKBA. In April, the government abolished the post-study work visa – effectively forcing many international students to leave the country.

London Met is not alone in struggling to meet visa monitoring requirements: in a number of prestigious Russell Group universities, staff will privately admit that cuts to registry departments have made them effectively negligent. The effects of a curtailment order in this context are expressly political – the coalition is refusing to intervene to save the institution from bankruptcy because, unlike the universities that its own sons and daughters attend, London Met has become a target for the government’s market experiment in higher education.

Ultimately, this chaotic, money-driven experience is not confined to international students. With the rapid extension of the market across the system, this is the government’s vision for everyone in higher education. Events at London Met are once again proving to be a crucial and symbolic battleground for the future of education as a whole. Everyone who believes in preserving education as a public service must be willing to take action – in the courts and on the streets.

Government concerns over G4S and Serco to house asylum seekers

Category : Business

Home Office orders weekly reports on progress of security firms’ contracts to house asylum seekers in north of England

Home Office ministers have ordered weekly reports on the progress of two new contracts with the private security companies G4S and Serco to house and provide support services for thousands of asylum seekers and their families.

The chief executive of the UK Border Agency (UKBA), Rob Whiteman, has confirmed that serious concerns about the ability of the two companies to find housing for thousands of asylum seekers across the north of England by November has led to closer monitoring at the most senior levels of the Home Office.

The £883m a year Compass contract to provide support services for dispersed asylum seekers is the largest project run by the Home Office. The two private security companies took over the five-year asylum housing contracts in four of the six UKBA regions across Britain from social landlords, including councils, in March.

The companies were expected to start moving people in June. But after a contractual dispute G4S dropped its housing subcontractor for the Yorkshire and Humberside region, United Property Management, in June and its new subcontractors have yet to find enough homes.

Two councils, Sheffield and Kirklees, have raised concerns about their ability to deliver the housing contract within the expected timetable. Kirklees council said that a fortnight ago, only one family out of 240 asylum seekers had been moved as part of the transition from the council to the new providers.

“There are 240 asylum seekers being assisted. We understand the subcontractors are finding it difficult to procure accommodation and the council has been asked to continue to provide assistance until the end of October. There is no suggestion however that the council’s contract will be renewed after this time,”

Whiteman has told the Commons public accounts committee there were also concerns about the two Serco contracts, one covering north-west England and the other Scotland and Northern Ireland, including the “speed at which properties are being acquired”.

He said the issue had been “escalated” to directly involve himself and Jeremy Oppenheim, the UKBA director of immigration and settlement. Weekly reports are also being sent to ministers.

“It is not at this stage anywhere near penalties because they are acting within the contract in terms of how the work is handed over to them,” Whiteman told MPs. “We do have concerns about mobilisation. We are escalating this and I have been involved in meetings on that but it is at a relatively early stage.” He added there were other remedies available under the contracts but he hoped the difficulties would be resolved.

G4S has denied it is experiencing difficulties in finding accommodation for asylum seekers in any of its contract areas: “The current contractors – the Yorkshire and Humberside consortium – have a contract to manage service users until 2 November 2012. We’re on track to move everyone out of their properties where this is required by that date. We have agreed we will move households in some areas at a faster rate than this so some areas will be complete by the end of September rather than the end of November,” said a company statement.

Margaret Hodge, the public accounts committee chair, raised the issue with the UKBA after hearing concerns that the companies had signed the contracts but not secured accommodation.

The UKBA said it expected the new providers to fulfil the terms of the contracts: “We are working closely with them to ensure the majority of people will continue living in their current properties. Where people do need to move proper consideration will be given to ensure minimum disruption.”

BA and Border Agency in row over Heathrow congestion

Category : Business

BA said passengers faced busy queues at immigration at Terminal 5 on Friday but the Border Agency insists it is ready for the half-term rush this weekend

British Airways and the UK Border Agency (UKBA) were at loggerheads on Friday night over claims by the airline that passengers were experiencing longer than normal waits at immigration areas due to a lack of Border Agency staff in the run-up to one of the airport’s busiest weekends of the year.

Passengers were faced with busy queues on Friday morning at immigration checkpoints in Heathrow’s Terminal 5, according to BA, which subsequently sent out a memo to cabin crew so that they could inform passengers of potential delays on arrival.

“We are working with Heathrow airport and speaking to UK Border Agency to understand why the immigration area was affected,” BA said in a statement on Friday evening.

“We are doing all we can to assist our customers and are sorry that they are being affected by this issue, which is regrettably beyond our control.”

A Heathrow spokesman said: “No one has notified us of a staff shortage. However it is up to UK Border Agency to staff the border appropriately.”

A spokesperson for the UKBA said that it “did not accept” what British Airways said and insisted that, as of 10pm on Friday night, there was no congestion at the immigration area in Heathrow’s T5.

“We are expecting an exceptionally busy weekend as usual for the end of February half term,” the UKBA said in a statement. “There will be a significant number of passengers coming through UK border controls and we have organised extra resources to ensure that we have sufficient staff to process passengers as quickly as possible, while maintaining border security.”