30 Aug 2012

Students in chaos as university loses right to sponsor visas

Thousands of overseas students could be thrown out of Britain within 60 days after London Metropolitan Unversity was stripped of its right to authorise their visas.

The UK Border Agency is investigating the status of visas authorised by the university, after accusing it of failing to address “serious and systematic failings” that were identified six months ago.

Its audit found that a quarter of students did not have permission to stay in the UK, many did not have a good grasp of English, and said the university had no idea whether they were turning up to lectures or not. The Immigration Minister Damien Green branded the LMU “very, very seriously deficient as a sponsor”.

But citics say the university’s licence should only have been revoked as a last resort – rather than leave thousands of students worrying about their future. Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said it would also send out a damaging message around the world.

“The last thing we can afford to do is send a message that international students are no longer welcome here”, she said. “Yet Government efforts to impress a domestic audience by sounding tough on immigration, coupled with the chaotic handling of this affair, risk doing exactly that.” And the National Union of Students warned it would create “panic and potential heartbreak” for students around the country.

Keith Vaz, who chairs the Home Affairs Select Committee, said Britain’s reputation as a prime destination for overseas students could be damaged, He said the decision had been taken at the worst possible time, right before the start of the new academic year.

The Vice Chancellor of LMU, Malcolm Gillies, has said the loss of non-EU students could create a thirty million pound loss, almost a fifth of the institution’s entire budget. The university would not be able to take on extra British or EU students to make up the shortfall, as there is a strict limit on numbers imposed by the Government.

David Willetts, the Universities minister, has set up a task force led by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, to help students and their families who could be affected. He said it would help “genuine students” would be given prompt advice and help to find alternative institutions where they could finish their degrees.

Some private higher education colleges have already been closed down as part of the Government’s crackdown on bogus students. But the decision to revoke LMU’s ability to sponsor visas could have a far wider impact. There are around 300,000 overseas students currently in the UK, worth around five billion pounds to the economy.

In the meantime, Professor Gillies has said the university will be disputing the claims against them, and warned that educational establishments across the country should be concerned too. He said he had set up a hotline for all those affected, and will be trying to help them find places elsewhere to continue their studies.

It is still not clear whether LMU will remain financially viable. A lawyer who heads the immigration team at Russell-Cooke solicitors, Edward Wanambwa, said the university could potentially be sued for millions of pounds, unless the decision was overturned. And he said it might also have to repay “some or all of the fees paid by international students”.