Only six weeks into what many view as the toughest job in higher education, John Raftery has received some good news.
The new vice-chancellor of London Metropolitan University was informed by the Home Office last week that it has restored the institution’s highly trusted status, which was snatched away two years ago amid a blaze of negative publicity.
London Met was allowed to admit up to 1,000 non-EU students a year from April 2013, but the full restoration of its visa licence is the moment that many hope will close a traumatic episode in the institution’s history.
Raftery, who joined London Met after five years as Oxford Brookes University’s pro vice-chancellor for student experience, says that sorting out the visa licence has been his top priority since arriving in August. “I have done almost nothing else,” he says.
Now, with procedures to satisfy the Home Office in place, Raftery is confident that London Met can focus on other pressing matters, despite tougher visa rules taking effect from November.
Under these new regulations, institutions where 10 per cent of international students are offered a place but refused a visa will lose their sponsor licence. The current threshold is 20 per cent.
London Met’s current visa refusal rate varies from month to month, but is “miles away from 10 per cent”, says Raftery, who adds that it sometimes dips below 3 per cent.
Regaining the full visa licence will help London Met to begin “measured, gentle growth” of overseas student numbers as the university starts to rebuild its battered reputation.
At the heart of that work will be the quality of academic provision, says Raftery, who highlights his success at Oxford Brookes where National Student Survey scores rose from 83 per cent to 89 per cent on his watch.
“I have spent five years improving the student experience at Oxford Brookes, where we transformed it,” he says, adding: “I’ve done it once, I’ll do it again.”
He makes no secret that improving London Met’s NSS score - a lowly 76 per cent, despite a 4 percentage point jump this year – is a key priority as it feeds into influential university league tables.
Is that pledge a bit foolhardy given that almost all London universities score below average in the annual survey? “I’ve challenged my institution not to make lazy assumptions about the ‘London effect’,” Raftery says.
As part of what he calls his “relentless, almost obsessional focus on student experience”, he has set out to read every one of the thousands of comments made in last year’s NSS.
Paying students £8.80 an hour to mentor those in the year below them is also an early initiative to improve London Met’s rating, by delivering about 10,000 extra hours of tuition. It has also been proved to improve scores,he says.
Raftery, an expert in applied economics with a background in consultancy, is also targeting employability as measured by the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education survey.
Work placements must be embedded in virtually all courses, he suggests in a staff consultation, while he has launched a graduate intern scheme at London Met to employ 35 recent alumni each year.
These ideas sound fairly uncontroversial, yet Raftery is also asking some tougher questions of the institution. Should it slightly raise its entry tariff to help cut dropout rates and boost the chances of more students gaining a 2:1 degree?
It is a tactic employed successfully at the University of Greenwich - also known for its widening participation mission - since 2011, but would mark an even greater departure for London Met, whose work centres on students from the deprived areas of North and East London, who are often older, hold lower grades and are from ethnic minorities.
Raftery admits that striking the balance between academic selectivity and social inclusion, as well as maintaining a healthy student enrolment, is a “complicated decision”.
Less able students “need a lot of help and support” and “we have to be sure that they can develop higher learning and thinking skills”, he says.
His work at London Met has just begun, but Raftery believes that he can “inject some new confidence” into the institution after several years of damaging scandals, course closures and redundancies.
He credits much of his optimism to the US side of his family (his wife is from Boston), calling them “insanely positive”, and hopes that this will rub off at London Met.
“It’s all about having joy in the job,” he says.