One big mess: When universities meet the UK Border Agency...

My, what a week this has been! And what a big, big mess – not just for the students involved, or the university, but also for the sector. Last week the UK Border Agency (UKBA) officially withdrew London Metropolitan University’s licence enabling it to accept non-EU students. In short, London Met no longer has the kite mark – ‘fully trusted’ – meaning it has failed to meet the rules for compliance.

In effect, London Met stands to lose a valuable revenue stream of some £30 million (US$48 million). Why? The UKBA’s account is that London Met has displayed systemic failures in accounting for the immigration status of international students.

More than a quarter of cases sampled had no leave to remain in Britain, the UKBA pointed out. There was also no proof that “a significant proportion” of international students had satisfactory English. Further, in more than half of the cases, the university did not know whether students were turning up to lectures or not.

The nearly 2,600 international students at London Met currently affected have been told via a notice on the UKBA website that the agency will work with all “appropriately qualified genuine students to find another institution where they can continue their studies in the UK”.

As is to be expected, international students are more than anxious about the process and the outcomes. Who are appropriately qualified and genuine students? Which institutions will take on these students on the cusp of a new, and by anyone’s reckoning, challenging year? What if the student can’t be placed? Will they face deportation? Will they lose the large sums of money invested in their education so far?

What effect will this have on the rest of the sector, and its dependence on reputation for the purposes of global marketing and brand recognition?

To those within the sector, the answer is obvious. It will destabilise an already delicately poised situation – as the new £9,000 (US$14,000) fee structure is rolled out and a circling set of for-profit providers are positioning themselves to take the easy prey.

Blaming and shaming circulated like a gathering windstorm during the week, with the blogosphere going wild. "London Met deserved to be deregistered as it had failed to follow the rules," argued some. "London Met had a job to do and they did not do it," others pointed out.

And indeed, clearly there were failures in the systems in place within London Met, including systems for recording and reporting absenteeism among international students to the UKBA, if we are to believe the agency.

London Met goes to court

But others posed the question of why it was that the university was being asked to do the UKBA’s work, and that indeed fault lay with the agency for the complex and changing rules for securing its ‘trusted’ status.

And it is this latter route that London Met has decided to pursue through the High Court.

In essence, it argues that the UKBA has changed its rules regarding compliance more than 14 times over the past three years. Some rules were also ambiguous, leaving institutions open to the consequences of misinterpretation. New rules have been issued midway through the academic cycle so that in one case, when the five-year cap rule was introduced, offers to more than 6,000 students had to be manually revisited and revised.

For universities, this new student visa and institutional recognition system – itself driven by multiple anxieties about over-stayers, illegal migrants and security threats – has overburdened an already stretched higher education system with its reporting demands and created a major PR management job for the sector as a whole.

International students will surely be asking themselves: "Which institutions are next on the list? What mechanisms are in place to ensure that when one provider collapses, I am able to ensure that I have the education I paid for?"

This is the hard edge of what it means to run a consumer-based higher education system. Buyers can go elsewhere. And they will. They can also expect some form of consumer protection.

However, I do not want to leave the story there, for this would be to let the case rest with the status quo, and leave current government policy unchallenged.

To be sure, there are likely lapses in procedures in London Met’s systems.

Yet, as the House of Commons public accounts committee pointed out in their report on the Points-based System-Student Route, the UKBA has poorly implemented an over-complex system, with little regard being given to the regulatory burden, the costs of change and whether indeed all students present the same risk.

More worryingly, the UKBA’s heavy-handed approach to the situation at London Met suggests it does not fully understand the complexities involved in protecting a competitive, globalised higher education sector.

Let’s hope it learns – quickly.

* Susan L Robertson is professor of sociology of education in the Centre for Globalisation, Education and Societies at the University of Bristol, UK.