The UK Borders Agency’s War on Universities

Today’s news that the UK Borders Agency (UKBA) has suspended London Metropolitan University’s ‘Highly Trusted Status’ (also reported here) has caused more than a few shockwaves – with potentially quite tragic outcomes for a number of overseas students who have already spent over two years and invested tens of thousands of pounds in a British education that is likely to now be denied to them.

Around 2,000 students currently studying at the university now have 60 days to find another university that will accept them – or they will be deported, with no certificate or qualification to show for the time and money they have spent here. This is clearly an extreme response by the UKBA to what appears to be very poor record keeping on the part of LMU, but not totally unexpected – it is merely the latest escalation of the UKBA’s developing war on universities – a war that seeks to ‘improve’ the UK immigration figures without regard to possible cost to the British economy. A war that picks the easiest targets – not necessarily the best ones.

The UKBA could have allowed existing LMU students to complete their courses at the institution while preventing the institution from recruiting new overseas students – and would have avoided causing so much fear and uncertainty amongst the current students. To be clear, the ‘Highly Trusted Status’ is being revoked not because of any evidence that any of these students were in any way fake students – although a sample of students showed some were studying past the end of their visa expiry dates. The charges against the university are laid out in the BBC article:

Immigration Minister Damian Green said London Metropolitan University had failed in three particular areas:

  • More than a quarter of the 101 students sampled were studying at the university when they had no leave to remain in this country
  • Some 20 of 50 checked files found “no proper evidence” that the students’ mandatory English levels had been reached
  • And some 142 of 250 (57%) sampled records had attendance monitoring issues, which meant it was impossible for the university to know whether students were turning up for classes or not.

So while there were failing, it does not appear that there had been large scale systematic abuse of the visa system at LMU – rather, LMU haven’t been keeping records as they should have. LMU haven’t done an acceptable (to the UKBA) job of proving that there hasn’t been abuse and because the UKBA works on a system based on “guilty until proven innocent”, the 75% of fee paying overseas, and legitimate, students now face deportation and the loss of any academic qualifications that they were working towards.

Unsurprisingly, Universities UK is concerned about the damage to the UK’s international reputation and ability to attract overseas students (and their money) to these shores. Not just from the students who may have to leave, but from the students who may now decide not to come to the UK at all – and choose to spend their tuition fees elsewhere:

Sir Christopher Snowden … vice-president of Universities UK, said: “The London Met situation is very serious, not only for that university, but for the whole UK sector as it could send a very negative message overseas… UK universities contribute over £8 billion to the UK economy through their education of international students and this type of incident certainly threatens that important contribution to the economy. [THES Online]

Universities UK chief executive Nicola Dandridge said the UKBA had made “an extraordinary decision” which was both “surprising and disproportionate”.

“It is one thing raising issues if they have them with London Met and, if appropriate, penalising the university. That may be appropriate or it may not be. But penalising legitimate international students is disproportionate and it is damaging to our international reputation.” [ BBC News]

Clearly, this is bad news for LMU, and for the overseas students who were expecting to complete their studies there. If that were all, it would be bad enough, but this is just the latest escalation in the UKBA war on universities:

  • 21% fewer student visas were issued in the year to June 2012 than the preceding year, showing that the UKBA is working hard to limit student numbers. [BBC News]
  • The cost of failure to ensure students leave after their study, or to ensure that students are not working in the UK is being pushed onto Universities, while much of the blame lies with the UKBA itself. [THES – National Audit Office]
  • The UKBA guidelines are long, complex and subject to change at very short notice. Universities have to comply with all rules and changes – at considerable expense. Even if rules change after students have been offered places on, or even started, their courses: “They change mid-cycle, too. Last year, our admissions offices had to revisit more than 6,000 offers we had already made, manually, twice, to see if they met new rules the UKBA had introduced on English language and academic progression. ” [THES]
  • The UKBA, which is not an educational institution or body, decides what constitutes an acceptable level of English language ability. It also sometimes assesses this itself, which with their overall drive to reduce immigration unsurprisingly results in more rejections. As a highlight, this resulted in over 100 students on a Brazilian funded scheme to let some of their top students study abroad going to study in the US instead of the UK after failing the UKBA tests. Selected students with proven academic ability, genuine student status and overseas government funding still not enough to please the UKBA. [THES]
  • The general climate engendered by the UKBA is harmful end-to-end across the university sector – with changes making it harder for students to come to the UK to improve their English prior to starting study as well as much less likely to be granted rights to work in the UK afterwards. The changes are sufficiently complex and off-putting for potential students that it could result in the closure of some courses that rely on overseas students. It is also reportedly causing friction in government between the Home Office (concerned with immigration) and Business, Innovation and Skills (concerned with universities and developing industry and a skilled workforce). [THES]
  • The UKBA is highly demanding of Universities abilities to produce paperwork and documentation on demand, but is proving to be less than timely in how it handles applications from students. Students can be left trapped in the UK for months on end (often up to six months, sometimes even longer) while their passports and visa applications are lodged with the UKBA. The UKBA is trapping students who are here in the UK, leaving them unable to visit sick relatives or attend academic conferences while their applications are ‘processed’. Again, this is affecting the perception of the UK as a desirable place to study and will affect the ability of the UK to attract the best of students from overseas. [BBC News, Guardian & Huffington Post UK]

Overall, this does seem to amount to a war on the UK university system – and financially is likely to cost the whole of the UK at a time when attracting foreign investment and money should probably be a priority for any government committed to deficit reduction as the current one claims to be.

Further coverage of the current crisis at LMU from abroad:

[The Hindu: Many Indian students face deportation as varsity loses licence]

[Wall Street Journal India: UK University Ban Hits Indian Students]

[Times of India: Indian students stranded as UK cancels university licence]


7 thoughts on “The UK Borders Agency’s War on Universities

  1. Edmund Edgar

    One of the odd things about this – apart from a government proudly destroying one of the most promising growth sectors of its own economy – is that the whole point of all these regulations is supposed to be to stop people who don’t really want to study from signing up for a course just to get a visa.

    But a chunk of the UKBA’s (admittedly rather small) sample don’t seem to have had visas in the first place, let alone student visas that they were using to stay in the country and work. So apparently foreign students are actually signing up for courses because they want to… study

  2. John Sutherland


    I was thinking about this yesterday evening. What to say if asked by them, ‘What are your procedures?’. There are a range of answers:

    1. I follow the procedures as set down by my employer

    2. who are you to ask me what my procedures are when yours are chaotic, incomprehensible and inconsistent and subject to change at absolutely no notice during term time? How can we respond when you demand a change, then UUK has to react, then my employer has to react, then I – with a hundred other things to do – have then to react.

    3. most importantly, we are required by instruction and probably by statute to treat all students identically. We do not know who the non-EU/non-EEA students are (I can’ t even name the countries of the EU or the EEA). UKBA makes a change and it affects ALL students, not just ‘foreigners’.

    It may sound a tad aggressive, but we don’t work for them. We need to defend our students and our employer against the behemoth that is the UKBA.

    Finally, there is clearly a nasty undertone. Who has been attacked: 1990′s universities. Is anyone going to go for Cambridge, UCL or Edinburgh? No way, Jose! It is us, the upstarts, they are after.

  3. Daniel Post author

    One other element I forgot to mention is that for many universities, it is no longer possible for PhD students to have external examiners come from outside the EU.
    This only affects a small number of students, but if a PhD student has a thesis sufficiently impressive to attract a highly qualified examiner from the USA – who might end up spending less than 72 hours in the UK, or would be combining the examination with an existing visit – why should the UKBA be the reason for saying no?
    The principal of academic peer review as applied to PhD examinations is being eroded by the UKBA, because the global academic community outside of the EU is no longer welcome.

  4. Daniel Post author

    A comment supporting the UKBA from someone at a company that makes its business from helping overseas students find places at UK universities and in obtaining visas…
    Bizarre indeed.
    Perhaps it was for the links?

  5. Edmund Edgar

    Not sure how stopping illegal immigration is supposed to be connected to this. It won’t get rid of the people who were studying there without visas – they’ll still be living in the country illegally. The students who get kicked out will be the ones who were in the country legally.

  6. Daniel Post author

    Oh for goodness sake… it turns out that the UKBA doesn’t actually have any idea how many overseas students go home after studying in the UK!

    ” Fiona Mactaggart, MP for Slough, asked: what percentage of students return to their country of origin or go to another country after graduating? Dame Helen Ghosh, at that time permanent secretary for the Home Office, replied: “It is hard to say until you have the kind of measurement that we will get through e-Borders.” ”

    From this story at the THES


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