Thursday, 30 August 2012


I guess it is not often that an academic's research results in his university losing thousands of students, and possibly its financial viability, but that seems to have happened in my case.

From 1997 to 2002, Franck Duevell and I conducted a research project to investigate how migrant workers from abroad entered the UK without proper immigration status, how they stayed here, and how they decided whether or not to settle; we also studied how the authorities tried to control the inflow of such immigrants, and with what outcomes. Franck and I were both in principle in favour of free international movement of people and of workers (we were both immigrants ourselves), and we wanted to explore some of the contradictions of immigration policies and control practices. In the event, these were not difficult to discover.

One glaring loophole was the large number of people who entered the country as 'students' (mainly of English language), registered at 'colleges' (which in fact made their money by acting as visa brokers for such people), and then went on to get work in the underground economy almost straight away, never attending any classes (the 'colleges' did not put many on in any case). Although our research interviews with the control authorities showed they knew about these practices, nothing was done about them; nor did this change when we sent the report of our findings to the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett (a personal friend).

The research was conducted in London, and London Metropolitan University kindly allowed Franck to use a room at one of its buildings as a base. Later I was given a part-time post in the same department, and did some teaching there. My contract was not renewed, on the grounds of my age, after I reached 65.

Today's news is that London Met has had its licence to grant visas to overseas students revoked with immediate effect, because it could not satisfy the UK Borders Agency that it was checking whether such students could speak English or were attending classes. This means that around 2,000 students will be eligible for deportation, unless they can register elsewhere, and that London Met's finances will be radically damaged, since overseas students pay at the highest rates.

The decision by UKBA is part of a programme that has seen the closure of hundreds of the kinds of 'colleges' that our research identified, carried through by the coalition government, presumably basing itself on our research. London Met's generosity in allowing us to find a home there has been badly rewarded.

Critics of research such as ours often say that it could harm individual respondents who tell the secrets of evading the law, but I have always maintained that the real ethical dilemmas concern policy changes following publication of findings. In this case it took 10 years, and the consequences have been borne, to my astonishment, at least partly by our host university.


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