Students face deportation after university loses visa licence

International students facing deportation from the UK after their university was stripped of its ability to admit students from outside the European Union – for breaches of tough new immigration rules – are struggling to find places elsewhere, against widespread criticism of the decision.

London Metropolitan University, or LMU, lost its highly trusted status (HTS) for sponsoring international students, as part of the government’s tighter immigration rules introduced in April this year.

Immigration Minister Damian Green said a UK Border Agency (UKBA) investigation had found evidence of a “serious systemic failure”, and that it appeared the university didn’t have the capacity to be a proper sponsor or to have confidence that “the students coming have the right to be here in the first place”.

UKBA found that of 101 sample cases, 26 students were studying between December last year and May despite the fact they held no leave to remain in the UK.

The university lacked the required processes to prove students were turning up to lectures in 142 of 250 (57%) sampled records. Documents required to supply evidence of mandatory English language testing and academic qualifications were either not verified or not held in 20 of 50 files checked since May.

After the licence was suspended in July, the university said it had repeatedly tried to liaise with the UKBA to understand further their concerns. Vice-chancellor Malcolm Gillies said these seemed to be focused on processes related to the legacy of previous management.

“Disappointingly, the UKBA has been unwilling to communicate with the university, despite the growing £10 million-plus [US$16 million-plus] hole their action has already left on our balance sheet.”

LMU has set up a helpline for international students: the number is +44 (0) 20 7133 4141. The UKBA issued detailed advice to existing and prospective non-EU students.

The Sunday Times reported on 26 August that a decision had been made to revoke the LMU's licence, a story which the university says the Home Office denied within hours of publication of the newspaper report. The UKBA decision was communicated to the university at 20.30 on 29 August.

On 30 August David Willetts, the universities minister, announced a task force led by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) – and which includes Universities UK (UUK), the UKBA and the National Union of Students (NUS) – to start immediately to support affected students and enable genuine students to find another institution at which they can continue their studies in the UK.

"It is important that genuine students who are affected through no fault of their own are offered prompt advice and help, including, if necessary, with finding other institutions at which to finish their studies,” Willetts said.

But there was immediate criticism from UUK of the way the case had been handled.

Professor Eric Thomas, the UUK president, said: “The UKBA's decision to revoke London Metropolitan University’s licence will cause anxiety and distress to those many legitimate international students currently studying at London Metropolitan, and their families.

"We believe that there were alternative ways of addressing UKBA's concerns, and that revocation of a university's licence should only be a decision of last resort. We will be working with UKBA to ensure that compliance issues can be addressed in a more constructive way in the future.”

He said the first priority was to support the international students affected by the action to ensure that, wherever possible, they could stay in the UK and continue their studies.

HEFCE said it would do all it could to support LMU’s students, including, if necessary, helping existing overseas students to find places at other universities.

“We will do whatever we can to give students the opportunity to undertake their studies without disruption, delay or uncertainty. This must be the primary consideration of all concerned.”

On 31 August the UKBA told the first session of the task force that the 60-day countdown for “genuine” students will start only when the agency writes to them after 1 October, effectively extending the time for them to enrol at another university or make arrangements to leave the UK to 1 December.

In practice students will either be able to find places at other universities well before the deadline, or will decide to withdraw from study in the UK.

Although a number of universities, including the University of East London, have thrown a potential lifeline to displaced students, it is not clear that all will be able to transfer to continue their studies.

UEL launched a hotline for LMU’s international students. On its website it said: “As a university with a proud tradition of hosting and teaching students from more than 120 countries worldwide, we would like to reassure these students that UEL is certainly one of the many serious options they can consider in order to continue their higher education.” The hotline number is +44 (0) 208 223 3300.

The NUS contacted Prime Minister David Cameron and Home Secretary Theresa May to express anger at the way that decisions have been made in recent weeks and to reiterate the potentially catastrophic effects on higher education, as a £12.5 billion (US$19.7 billion) a year export industry for the UK.

The NUS president, Liam Burns, said: “This heavy-handed decision makes no sense for students, no sense for institutions and no sense for the country. This situation and the botched process by which the decision was arrived at could be avoided if international students were not included in statistics of permanent migrants.”

But the think-tank Migration Watch said: “Removing students from the net migration statistics would be wrong in principle and impossible in practice. It is wrong in principle to remove over half of the recorded inflow. There is no difference between a worker and student if they are both here for several years...

“In practical terms, to take students out of the net migration would require a reasonably reliable estimate of student inflows and outflows so that the difference between these two flows could be subtracted from the net migration figures. However, this cannot be done with the statistics currently available.”

Migration Watch, which campaigns for a reduction in net immigration from its 2010 high of 252,000 to 40,000 or below, also challenged the claims for the value of the international student industry, presenting research that put the figure at £4.3 billion.

Chris Bryant, shadow immigration minister, has said migration figures published this week contradicted the government's decision to revoke LMU's licence.

“After weeks of hedging and denying, the immigration minister announced that LMU has lost its ability to sponsor international students.

“It seems very convenient that this decision should be announced as, once again, the quarterly immigration figures show that the government’s policies are having limited impact on numbers. This announcement leaves thousands of genuine international students in an impossible situation of finding a new place to study, just days before the beginning of a new university term.”

There is concern that the financial implications of the decision may be critical to LMU's future. John Dickie, director of strategy and policy, of the business lobby group London First, accused the UKBA of undermining an institution that plays a vital role in London's, and the UK's, educational infrastructure.

“For example, London Met educates more students from ethnic minorities than all of the Oxbridge colleges put together and attracts thousands of bona fide overseas students, whose fees effectively subsidise indigenous students' education.”

He warned: “The harm done to Britain's reputation in their countries of origin will inevitably affect future applications to all British universities. Foreign students contributed about £8 billion to the UK economy in 2009.

"The government says it wants to encourage them, but its actions – from heavy-handed behaviour by UKBA to their illogical inclusion in the statistics on permanent migration – suggest the opposite.”

This article was updated on 1 September in the light of additional information from the UKBA