Thursday, April 18, 2013

Does London Met trouble trail lead to Home Office?

LONDON MET protests won reinstatement. But fight is going on.

HAS the government been directly interfering in the running of a university?
 IF it has done, and everything is above board and correct, why has it done so from behind the scenes, and why are the university authorities and media covering up for it?

 London Metropolitan University has been through enough trouble in the last few years to last most institutions a lifetime. In January 2010, it was found guilty of misreporting domestic student numbers and told to return £36.5m of public funding. Courses and staff were cut, though unions and students protested that they were being made to pay for a mess that was not of their making. The governing body resigned en masse and a new vice-chancellor, Malcolm Gillies, was brought in.

Then in August last year, the UK Border Agency accused the London Met of a systemic failure to monitor overseas students. The implication was that students were signing up for expensive degree courses merely so they drop out and take the sort of jobs done by illegal immigrants. Whatever the truth it left many bona fide students who'd paid for their courses in limbo, not even sure they could get back into the country if they had gone home for the Summer vacation, let alone return to their courses. Others feared deportation if they could not find another place to work for finals. Many who had to find another place are still angry.
Banned students still angry
On April 9 this year London Met's right to recruit overseas students was provisionally reinstated. But the international scandal has had lasting effects. For the 2012-13 academic year, enrolments were down 43%. And the ban had a "big effect on income", Vice Chanceller Gillies concedes.

In December, Stephen Perkins, dean of the business school, announced that the school would be cutting 40% of staff and three-quarters of its courses "to ensure the university's future sustainability". A report in the Guardian highlights the case of a PhD student whose work was thrown into chaos by staff resignation. "... Ross's main supervisor, whom he describes as a 'fantastic' professor, left the school voluntarily. Ross had no idea what this meant for him – and he couldn't find anyone to answer his questions. 'The university never even contacted me to let me know that my director of studies had left,' he says."

Now Gillies is about to publish a new three-year business plan which will cut a further 150 posts on top of 200 that went last year, and more staff are expected to leave voluntarily.
 London Met "survival strategy"

But London Met's problems have become political, as well as economic.

On March 12-13 three members of staff were re-instated after up to five weeks suspension, which led to a campaign in their support by the trade union Unison and others. Jawad Botmeh, convicted in what many people believe was a frame-up for "conspiracy" to bomb the Israeli embassy in 1994, had been working quietly as a researcher in London Met's Working Lives institute for five years. There were no complaints about his work or conduct, and he appears to have got along well with colleagues. It was after he was elected a staff governor that his suspension followed.

After he was reinstated Jawad stepped down from the board of governors.

According to an email from University secretary Alison Wells: "The Board and the University had become aware that Jawad Botmeh's membership of the Board would impact adversely on the interests and the future sustainability of the institution".

This as good as confirmed my suspicion that somebody was putting pressure on London Met from outside, though it remained to be seen where this was coming from.  

Meanwhile, though back in their jobs, administrator and Unison shop steward Max Watson, and the head of the Working Lives Research Institute, Professor Steve Jefferys, have still been facing disciplinary charges, although it is not clear what they are supposed to have done wrong. What many trade unionists suspect, and beyond the confines of the university, is that not only have people in power disliked London Met's intake of working class students, but they resent the very existence of the Working Lives Institute because it deals with trade union rights and history, and records working people's experience.

At a protest meeting on Wednesday, the day Thatcher was being buried, and working people throughout the land were celebrating, Max Watson spoke of victimisation aimed at denying workers representation. Steve Jefferys, a one-time Chrysler factory worker, said that far from acting improperly, his department had introduced proper interviews for casual job applicants, in place of the informal arrangements which enabled people to appoint their mates.

 But what was most headline-grabbing - or should have been - was the announcement by speakers at this meeting that they have seen a confidential document from the Home Office, dated April 9, the same day London Met was given its probationary recruitment rights, expressing satisfaction at its conduct in removing Jawad Botmeh as a staff governor, and warning that its rights will be revoked if he is ever re-elected. 

London Met meeting, April 17

   In other words, if you know what is good for you, you will make sure no one is elected to any position of whom we disapprove!

And we wonder how long before this way of running things is applied more widely, whether in academic institutions or the rest of the country?  

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