When the government attacks London Met, you can't ignore race
There are more black students at London Metropolitan University than at all of the Russell Group universities combined. In 2010, one in eight of UK born black students went to just two universities – one of them was London Met (the University of East London). I mention this because, this week, London Met has had its status as a “highly trusted sponsor” revoked by the UK Border Agency. I mention it because it’s always important to look not just at abstract injustices, but at whom an injustice is being done to: it is important to look for trends.
The ability of a university to vouch for a student from outside the EU is crucial to its survival. However much we wish that universities didn’t overcharge international students, they have been told that the global market is where they must make up for the income the government has sliced from their block grants. They have planned their coming years on the basis of this cash. London Met, we are told, didn’t monitor its visa recipients closely enough. If this language sounds a little Orwellian, that’s because it is: if my university had tried to monitor me, I’d have made damn sure that they would have equally failed to do so ‘closely enough’.
Much of the media coverage of this story has rightly focussed on the impact on those immediately effected – international students at London Met. But what this means for those students who get to stay at the university shouldn’t be underestimated. As the Financial Times explain:
“The decision will have serious ramifications for the university: in 2010-11, £27m of London Met’s £157m income came from foreign students. That year, it ran an operating surplus of £3.9m, and had net assets of £112m.”
It is not unreasonable to assume that the university will plug the gap with cuts to teaching, to student support. It is not unreasonable to assume that this decision will ruin the higher education of those students who don’t require a special document permitting them to learn in Britain as well as those who do.
Now, anyone who has worked in anywhere darkened by the shadow of the Higher Education sector knows that there is a little more history than this: London Met got into serious deep water in 2009 when it turned out that theyhad been lying to the Higher Education Funding Council about the number of students they had. But to choose a measure which hammers students in order to indirectly punish those responsible? This was certainly not the only option.
Is it coincidence that this has happened to a university so key to the education of the UK’s black community? I don’t think so.
Let me put it another way. Can you imagine what would happen if Oxford university had its right to accept international students suspended by a bureaucrat? Can you imagine the list of MPs offices the Vice Chancellor could drop in to? The number of arms he could twist? Or the number of journalists who would put the story on the front page?
Oxford, you might argue, is but for Cambridge, an exception. But I would argue the same is true to some extent of any of the predominantly white universities in the country: it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. It’s not what you’ve done, it’s your reputation. If Britain operates on an old boys network, then it is much easier to assault those you don’t know. And if the people you don’t know are black, then you will assault black people.
The point is this: the bureaucrat who made the decision to pick on an institution which educates so many black people probably wouldn’t think of themselves as racist. There was certainly no criterion on the tick box form they will have filled out which encouraged them to pick on a university with more propensity to educate black students. But unless we also take into account the relative power that institutions have, in every way, because of the contexts in which they exist, then such decisions are liable to perpetuate injustices: they are likely to be another dot on a graph which adds up to structural racism. And, for a student at London Met having their course cut, is that really much better than a verbal slur?