London Met – Revealing the government’s Medea complex?

The recent London Metropolitan University crisis over international student visa reminds me of an ancient Greek tragedy, Medea, written by Euripides in 431BC.

In the play Medea, who was betrayed by her husband, Jason, and experienced difficulties in being accepted by the world she was in due to her barbarian background, took the lives of her sons in revenge.

This act of filicide, Medea’s killing of her children, has become a reflection point for many artworks ever since. Students are the hope of society, and therefore ‘children’ of the world.

For decades, UK universities have played a significant role in offering both local and international students the right learning and teaching space to become well cultivated, open-minded and humanistic people with vision and values.

Through educating students, UK universities have contributed tremendously to a brighter future for the world – promoting free, democratic and independent spirits and cultures, not only in the UK but also in many other countries. They have probably done more for human societies than the collective work of all the UK’s diplomats and politicians, although hardly any of this high quality, long-term contribution is recognised.

Difficult times

The UK government’s decision to revoke a university’s licence to recruit international students has taken away the country’s identity as a teaching and learning space. Withdrawing the right of international students, or indeed any group of students, to learn at a UK university signifies, in a metaphorical sense, that the UK – like Medea – is killing her own children.

If this is the case, then the question becomes: what makes a government behave like this?

From a historical perspective, the decision is not entirely a surprising development. It seems that whenever a UK government feels itself insecure, it tends to commit this kind of ‘social filicide’, often targeting its students in the process.

For example, in the 1980s the UK government was suffering internally from low economic development, and externally was seeing its international influence waning. Margaret Thatcher’s government decided to take on international students and charge them full-cost fees in 1980.

The UK was the only West European country that treated international students differently, and less favourably, fee-wise. This has had a significant impact on how UK universities are viewed as learning spaces for international students.

Apart from turning UK universities in a market-dominated direction – treating international students as a financial resource – one of the major consequences has been a significant decrease in UK universities' sense of social responsibility at an international level for the disadvantaged in other countries.

The UK is again facing difficult times: there is an economic crisis and the country is losing its voice on the international stage to strong new economies such as China and India. The insecurity felt by the UK government revives its Medea complex.

Anything but a ‘Big Society’

Underneath the mask of ‘Big Society’ is the logic of ‘action and reaction’ – regulations and punishment.

Local students were the first to feel the impact of this destruction – English students have been required to pay full-cost fees since 2011-12. The learning space of a certain group of students – the disadvantaged – has once more been ‘sacrificed’.

But this is not enough. The UK government has decided to completely revoke international students’ learning space in one of its universities. The intention is obvious – to set an example.

The government’s Medea complex has made it a power-obsessed monster that seeks to exercise its destructive power inwardly in order to compensate for its powerless position abroad and to channel its frustration at the current economic climate and its influential international partners.

This had led to the rise of technocratic power as UK universities are transformed into administrative institutions. In other words, it's all about ‘regulations, regulations and regulations’.

The creative and visionary space for teaching, learning and even research in UK universities is gradually disappearing. Some recent developments include the increasing number of administrative staff in UK universities alongside their growing power.

Contemporary UK academics have already become a minority in their own institutions, according to figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency. They also have a harder job than technocrats in getting their voices heard by ‘high level’ management in universities.

The UK government’s Medea complex certainly does not help UK higher education. It makes the ground on which UK universities stand even shakier than before. But perhaps turning universities into administrative institutions is what the government really wants?

* Dr Iris Chiang is a lecturer in education, community and society at the University of Edinburgh.