Speed trap sprung

Susan Bassnett says that many play fast and loose with foreign students

September 20, 2012

The onset of autumn brings with it an exciting sense of preparing for the new academic year, of getting back into gear after what seems like an all-too-brief summer break. This year, though, it's different: having joined the ranks of the partially employed, I can look on as teaching and committee timetables float past me, for I have been released for ever from all that pressure.

After 10 years as a pro vice-chancellor and more years than I care to recall running a research centre, I am now an observer, still on the inside in a sense, but also able to look in from the outside and lend a sympathetic ear to friends still embroiled in the system.

There's a lot to be sympathetic about right now, as the misery of the research excellence framework afflicts colleagues at all stages of their careers. But I find myself feeling most sympathy for the benighted staff and students at London Metropolitan University, which has been banned from recruiting non-European Union students and whose international intake faces the prospect of having to find a place elsewhere or being forced to leave. These are pretty draconian measures and the university has launched a legal challenge, although press reports and the academic rumour machine suggest that warnings went unheeded.

Some bloke pontificating on the radio declared that this situation had been "a car crash waiting to happen". I prefer to think of it as being caught speeding. We all know the scenario: out of a line of cars all zooming along at more than 80mph on the motorway, just one motorist is unfortunate enough to be trapped by a hand-held camera wielded by a bored traffic policeman with half an hour to kill before he can go home. All the others slam on the brakes for a second or two as they clock the camera but do not change their driving habits one whit.

We have all seen the way in which international students with poor qualifications have been recruited as cash cows for years now. One of the UK Border Agency's claims is that in 20 out of 50 cases examined at London Met, there was "no verification" that students had met basic standards of English. I am not the only academic to have acted as an external examiner, assessor or auditor in the sector and to have seen scripts in English so poor that the students wouldn't scrape a GCSE. Over the years, I have encountered cases of academics earning tidy little sums on the side by assisting students with inadequate command of English to produce essays, and I have been asked to "disregard linguistic competence and focus on content" in some places. On one occasion, I was present at a meeting where someone (mercifully not an academic) pointed out that it had started to become uneconomic to take home students, so why not simply recruit the high-fee-paying foreign ones? Every university has been touting for international applicants, and although many are good, often excellent, students, the pressure to boost numbers means that strict selection criteria are not always observed.

I know how difficult it is to establish clearly the credentials of some applicants. With help from a good international office, a decent university will have lists of universities in other countries, ranking them in order of quality. It will have clear guidelines on how to understand different methods of pre-university assessment in different countries and will try to insist on high English language scores. I say "try to" advisedly, because in my experience there are huge variations in what is considered to be a good English language score, often within the same institution. Moreover, although we assume that a certificate indicating a decent language score is genuine, it is common knowledge that there are all sorts of ways of bypassing the system: hence we have all found ourselves facing a student who can't string a sentence together turning up clutching a piece of paper that says he or she is fluent in reading, speaking and writing English.

I once had three students sent to me on an MA programme, all from the same country, all with wonderful references and qualifications, all funded by a UK organisation. One was brilliant, hard-working and a pleasure to teach. One was a spoilt princess, who liked tossing her Kate Middleton hair and was reluctant to read or write very much. The third was simply a disaster: arrogant, stupid and utterly unqualified. He resented my refusal to consider him for a PhD (the princess decided she was satisfied with a diploma and went home again) and demanded I write letters recommending him to other universities. He was, in fact, accepted at another institution (and it has to be said that whenever I have judged a student not to be up to master's or doctoral study, if they have been high-fee-paying international students, they have had no trouble being accepted elsewhere, sometimes at other Russell Group universities). I eventually discovered from the good student that the other two were children of important government officials, so the selection process may well have been subject to a bit of juggling.

Universities have colluded with this situation for years and successive governments have turned a blind eye because it has enabled them to continue to cut higher education funding. Nor are those colleagues stuck at the chalk face with students with poor language skills and irregular attendance likely to do any whistleblowing, since it is common knowledge that a lot of people's salaries are dependent on the cash cows being roped in. London Met has been made the scapegoat, and I have real sympathy for the students and for the colleagues who teach there. But, lest we forget, for every car caught speeding, there are another dozen drivers who heave sighs of relief.

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