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United Kingdom – further uncertainties for non-EU students

The end of August marked the start of an unprecedented scandal in the United Kingdom (UK) higher education community. The UK Border Agency (UKBA) announced, after The Sunday Times had already ‘leaked’ the news, that it revoked the status of Highly Trusted Sponsor – an official licence that allows UK institutions to recruit overseas (i.e. non-EU) students – from the London Metropolitan University (informally, London Met). In practice, this means that the London-based university has lost its right to teach non-EU students. The decision came as a shock in the academia and was about to directly affect close to 2 600 overseas students already enrolled at London Met. These students were told they had, following the decision, 60 days at their disposal to find another “sponsor”, i.e. another UK institution ready to host them. Otherwise they faced deportation. The students in question were assisted in their search by a task force formed of university representatives and stakeholder organisations. Students due to start their studies this month were initially asked not to travel to the UK. London Met estimated that this decision will cost the university around GBP 30 million/year (approx. EUR 37.6 million) in lost revenue.

The UKBA, investigating alleged abuses of the student visa system, justified its act through a report that underlines a number of failings observed at London Met. Amongst these is an apparent failure to ensure that incoming students are proficient enough in the English language, as well as a failure to properly monitor the overseas students once they arrived in the UK. The university representatives contested all these charges and criticised the agency for having modified its regulations more than a dozen times in the past years, while failing to provide necessary clarification and guidance whenever asked to.

The university has taken legal action against the UKBA. At the first hearing, on 21 September, it managed to obtain a couple of concessions: existing overseas students and new ones are allowed to continue and respectively start their courses at London Met, provided that they are already in the UK and have full immigration status. The agency agreed to allow “genuine” students to continue their studies until the end of the academic year or until the end of their courses. The university now has open floor to launch a full legal challenge – a judicial review.

The decision of UKBA was largely criticised in the country, out of fears that it will compromise the international reputation of UK universities overall. Various stakeholders also feared that the constant treatment of international students with suspicion will not send the right signals to potential students, and will thus prove unbeneficial, in the long term. This episode is part of a larger debate in the UK, on the need to severely cut net migration, and on whether or not international students should be counted in migration statistics (see ACA Newsletter – Education Europe, August 2012). Currently, overseas students staying more than a year in the UK are counted in these statistics. At the beginning of September, a committee of MPs called on the government to exclude international students from net migration counts, through a report – Overseas students and net migration – warning that the current policy is “undermining a world class export market”. It is unclear what turn the events will take, also since, following a government reshuffle, the country has a new immigration minister – MP Mark Harper.

London Met

Times Higher Education

Report – Overseas students and net migration