International students angered by London Met debacle

The withdrawal of ‘highly trusted sponsor’ status from London Metropolitan University has distressed and angered Indian students and parents.

But as the government announced a special fund to assist international students affected by the decision, experts said the London Met case should not be seen as representative of Britain’s higher education system.

“I am shocked and feel let down by the university. This withdrawal of licence has put our careers, jobs, life, money and everything else at stake,” said Abhimanyu Agrawal, an Indian student from Kolkata who was set to join London Met this month.

Agrawal was reacting to news that the university’s ‘highly trusted’ status had been revoked on 29 August by the UK Border Agency, or UKBA, due to “serious and systemic failures” in its processes for approving and monitoring non-European Union international students.

“I had already booked my flight to go to London in September. It is too late to apply elsewhere,” Agrawal told University World News.

“The UKBA decision is not a good sign. The UK changed its immigration rules considerably last year, and this decision sends a message that international students are not welcome.”

Up to 2,600 non-EU international students – more than 350 of them from India – have until 1 December to find an alternative ‘highly trusted’ place to study or face deportation. Most of the students hit by the recent shutting down of three US universities accused of visa fraud, were also Indian.

On Thursday Universities Minister David Willetts announced a £2 million (US$3.2 million) fund to assist London Met students affected by the UKBA decision, saying it would help legitimate students to meet costs they may incur by moving to another institution.

“It is important that genuine students who are affected through no fault of their own are given as much help as possible to continue their studies in the UK,” Willetts said. The fund would offset extra costs incurred while transferring, “and also help to put students’ minds at ease at what must be a very stressful and unsettling time”.

Indian students concerned

In the wake of the London Met debacle, prospective Indian students said Britain might not be the best option for a foreign education.

“After the UK discontinued the post-study work visa I looked at other options and decided on Canada. It is clear that the UK does not want international students in the country,” said student Anirudh Chail.

“If it was concerned about what it calls ‘genuine students’, the UKBA would have first investigated and ensured their rights rather than put a blanket ban on the university.”

But Narayanan Ramaswamy, head of education at the international consulting firm KPMG, said London Met was not a case of targeting Indian students.

“By sheer virtue of population, Indians and Chinese form the largest contingent of foreign students internationally. In the case of London Met, students from all nations were affected. There are rogue institutions in all countries and the same applies to the UK,” Ramaswamy said.

Reputation affected

However, students and parents in India were upset by local media reports that London Met had continued to recruit Indian students for more than a month after the UK authorities first suspended its licence to admit students from outside the EU.

“Clearly the university and its agents were cheating students and parents,” said Shyama Malik, whose daughter is scouting for options to pursue an undergraduate economics degree.

“The university should be punished but the UK government should make sure there is no damage to any of the affected students,” Malik argued.

Notably, London Met also continued to collect fees from international students it had admitted for the 2012-13 academic year, though they cannot now legally enter the UK. The university is refunding the fees.

Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, last week took a robust stand against the UKBA decision to impose a ban on London Met’s sponsorship of non-EU international students.

“The UK is being seen by prospective students abroad as unwelcoming,” Borysiewicz told local media on the sidelines of a convocation at Lovely Professional University in Punjab, where he was a guest. “The best option for such aspirants will simply be to go elsewhere. A xenophobic reputation once gained is difficult to dispel".

According to Ravi Lochan Singh, MD of the education consultancy Global Reach, it was possible that London Met would correct its shortcomings and win back ‘highly trusted’ status shortly. Two other universities had regained the status after losing it.

“But a kind of damage to repute has happened and, frankly, it is not fair to the students and alumni of the university, who know that the university may not be brilliant but is fairly good,” said Singh.

London Met has challenged the UKBA order in court and has opened a hotline to help worried students. A taskforce has also been set up to assist genuine students affected by the decision and to help find other universities to accept them.