Legal challenge to international student ban slapped on university

The UK university barred from teaching students from outside the European Union (EU) is to challenge the decision in court by the end of this week.

Professor Malcolm Gillies, vice-chancellor of London Metropolitan University (LMU), told the BBC flagship Today programme on Tuesday that it was seeking to have the revocation of its Highly Trusted Status by the UK Border Agency (UKBA) stayed.

“Our analysis with leading immigration lawyers indicates this report of the UKBA is wrong in so many details,” Gillies said. “We have an obligation to go to court.”

Loss of Highly Trusted Status (HTS), under which universities are required to vet applicants from outside the EU to ensure they meet immigration requirements, means that up to 2,700 current LMU students face deportation if they cannot find an alternative university at which to continue their studies by the end of November.

Gillies told the BBC: “We fundamentally contest their claim that there is a systemic failure here.”

He accepted that the decision by the UKBA, announced on 30 August, had done “huge damage” to LMU.

It had also done “a lot of damage to the credibility of British higher education”.

LMU said that the evidence it provided to the UKBA clearly showed that “on file after file we were taking every reasonable measure we could to be compliant”. The UKBA claim that LMU did not address serious and systemic failings identified six months ago was “simply not true”.

It said its checks on international students for English language and educational ability not only met but exceeded the UKBA requirements in a number of key areas.

“The university's staff has been diligently performing stringent checks to try and ensure that all individuals who are studying at the university are legally entitled to do so.

"The UKBA has not provided any constructive advice to the sector on this matter, despite being asked to on numerous occasions.”

The university believes that its monitoring complies with the UKBA's guidance and accused UKBA officers of ignoring information that was made available to them when they conducted their audit.

“Despite our concerns, we cooperated and assisted them fully and tried to persuade them on a number of occasions to review evidence that we felt was relevant.”

LMU claimed that the UKBA's requirements had changed substantially at least 14 times in the past three years.

“We believe the university's approach to complying with this multitude of changes is of a standard that not only equates with practices adopted by the majority of other universities in the sector but in a number of key areas exceeds sector-wide practice.”

This week the powerful House of Commons public accounts committee criticised the UKBA for disrupting the student visa system with “poorly planned and ill thought-out” changes in the rules for overseas students.

As a result an extra 50,000 people abused the system, coming to Britain to work rather than study, it said.

The committee of MPs said in a report published on Monday that the UKBA had enforced new rules for overseas students in 2009 before controls were in place. The result was a "difficult and costly" three years as the agency tried to amend the rules to clamp down on abuse.

It is against this background that vice-chancellors have expressed concern at the decision to make LMU the first university to lose its HTS.

On the same day, Immigration Minister Damian Green told MPs: “The UKBA found systemic failures that meant that London Met had not been able to ensure the appropriate admission and tracking of students from abroad.”

Green said that two other unidentified universities had their licences to admit overseas students temporarily suspended after UKBA investigations, but added that both had resolved their problems and were no longer suspended.

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

A ‘clearing house’ set up by LMU will support students wishing to transfer from that university to an alternative education provider or institution. It is to operate from 17 September and will offer every LMU international undergraduate student affected by the revocation decision a course or courses to which they can apply.

The task force said after its second meeting on Wednesday that the courses offered would be comparable in cost and curriculum, and the providers will be quality assured so that students can be confident that their learning experience will continue to meet high standards.

Providers will be based in London wherever possible in order to minimise disruption to students’ accommodation and transport arrangements.

The start of the clearing house has been put back, however, because of LMU’s legal challenge to the revocation of HTS. If the university wins a stay, the revocation will be set aside pending a further hearing and the university will be able, and will want, to continue to teach its current international students.

But the task force acknowledged the risk that later legal hearings might lead to the re-imposition of the revocation, creating a risk that students could have their studies disrupted in the course of the academic year.

Therefore, if the revocation is set aside, the task force may seek a guarantee that students will be allowed to complete their programmes at LMU for the whole of the academic year 2012-13. Any decision then taken to confirm revocation would be implemented in full only from 1 August 2013.

But if the UKBA and the government cannot agree to that solution and the risk of in-year disruption persists, students will be given the option of moving to another institution.

The potential for wider damage to the UK's international student recruitment was illustrated on 31 August when City University found itself named as the UKBA's target in China due to the similarity of its and LMU's titles in Mandarin.

It was wrongly named, by the Chinese national broadcaster, as the university stripped of its trusted status.

City University said: We are aware there may be some confusion around the translation of City University. There are two universities which use this name in Mandarin Chinese – City University London and LMU."

It stated it retained its HTS, enabling it to recruit and teach students in the UK.