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British Higher Ed's Visa Tensions

September 6, 2012

The British government's decision to revoke a major university's right to enroll international students is reverberating throughout the country's higher education sector and raising questions about the effect of immigration policies on international student enrollments.

The U.K. Border Agency has said that there were “systemic failures” at London Metropolitan University in the admission and monitoring of international students – accusations that the university will be contesting in court. Meanwhile, critics have condemned the revocation as politically motivated -- part of the Conservative-led coalition government’s attempts to reduce net migration -- poorly timed, and unduly punishing of students.

Furthermore, they argue that the displacement of 2,600 international students at the start of the academic year could damage England’s reputation as a desirable study destination. The displaced students have until December 1 to secure a spot in another British university, or otherwise face deportation.

"There are two issues that are often being conflated in the debate," said Sarah Mulley, the associate director for migration, trade and development for the Institute for Public Policy Research, a London-based think tank that (among other things) advocates for the benefits international students bring to the university sector and the economy as a whole. "One is enforcement of immigration rules -- making sure people have the right to be here. The other is the government's objective to reduce legitimate immigration."

"The government has been very clear that they want to drastically reduce the numbers of legitimate international  students coming to the U.K. When the government then makes a decision to revoke a license [to sponsor foreign students] from a large institution, it's viewed within that narrative."

Following the Rules?

The U.K. Border Agency has previously stripped hundreds of small, private colleges of the right to sponsor international students, but London Met is the first public university to face this sanction. The university stands accused of enrolling students who lacked permission to study in the country, admitting students without sufficient evidence of their English language proficiency, and failing to track the attendance of international students. In the latter case, the concern is that students who don't show up to class are using their student visas as a "back door" to come to England and work.

"Institutions must comply with the rules, whether they sponsor 10, 100, or 1,000 international students," Damian Green, the outgoing minister of state for immigration, said in addressing the House of Commons on Monday. (Green was replaced by Mark Harper on Tuesday, the BBC reported.)  "This includes having a system to check that students have the right visas to study in the U.K., and monitoring the attendance of students. Universities must ensure that students can speak English and have the right qualifications to study at degree level. UKBA found systemic failures which meant that London Met has not been able to ensure the appropriate admission and tracking of students from abroad."

London Met's leaders dispute that there is any evidence of systemic failures, and on Monday announced they'd be filing a legal challenge. They estimate that the loss of international students would translate into a £30 million annual hit.

In defending themselves, London Met officials have been keen to frame their own particular plight within the larger anti-immigration narrative. The university's most recent press statement bears the headline: "London Met rejects UKBA's attack on the Higher Education sector."

In that statement, Malcolm Gillies, the vice chancellor, and Clive Jones, chair of the Board of Governors, depict the university as victim to an immigration regime that is capricious and anti-student in its orientation. Citing 14 "substantial" changes in UKBA requirements in three years, they said, "It is not in anyone's interests for there to be a system in place which constantly changes and which forces universities, their management and their staff automatically to treat students with suspicion until proven otherwise. London Met is concerned that the current immigration policy is creating confusion across universities in the country and irrevocable damage to the U.K.'s globally recognized education sector."

Reducing Immigration

Dominic Scott,  the chief executive of the U.K. Council for International Student Affairs, said that London Met's critique of an unstable regulatory landscape is a fair one. “This has become a massively confused and complex area with the goalposts changing every month," he said. "It is not at all surprising that many institutions have found it difficult to keep up with the game.” Scott added that universities have found attendance monitoring requirements to be especially burdensome. Universities are now required to report an international student to the UKBA after he or she has missed 10 "expected points of contact" (such as lectures, tutorials, etc.).

Scott said that an increase in immigration enforcement seems to be connected to the government's desire to decrease the numbers of student visa holders, and weed out all but the "best and the brightest." Over the last two years, the U.K. has made a number of policy changes that have depressed international enrollments -- particularly at private colleges. These include strengthening English language testing requirements, prohibiting part-time work for students attending private colleges, and eliminating an option that allowed students to work in the country for two years after finishing their studies. The latest immigration statistics show a net decrease in immigration from 252,000 to 216,000, and a 30 percent drop in the number of student visas issued.

In England, international students are very much caught up in the broader debates about immigration. The government has established a goal of reducing net migration from "from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands," and many observers argue that there is no possible way for the government to reach its target without cutting into legitimate international student enrollments. Advocates have lobbied for the exclusion of international students from immigration statistics, so far with no success.

"One parallel we can draw is with what happened in the U.S. post-9/11," said Rajika Bhandari, deputy vice president for research and evaluation at the Institute of International Education, and director of the institute's Center for Academic Mobility Research. "There was a tightening in visa regulations and the government had to review all of its policies. Questions came up about whether the regulations in place were appropriate. There was a period of review and questioning, and if you look at the Open Doors data, there was just one year when we saw small declines [in international students coming to the U.S.]. After that, the trend reversed itself."

Risk to Reputation

Regardless of the alleged problems in London Metropolitan's processes, everyone agrees that a large number of innocent international students will suffer. For this reason, Universities U.K. has argued that "there were alternative ways of addressing UKBA's concerns, and that revocation of a university's license should only be a decision of last resort."

A task force comprised of representatives of Universities U.K., the UKBA, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and the National Union of Students has been formed to assist London Met’s international students in finding another university slot. In the meantime, the plight of these students has attracted the attention of politicians and the press alike.

“If they are then not able to find another university to go to, not able to complete their courses, and subsequently deported from this country, what impression is their home country going to have of Britain?” Jeremy Corbyn, a Labour Party Member of Parliament, asked during a House of Commons session on Monday. “What attitude are they going to have towards this country in the future when, through no fault of their own whatsoever, they’ve been denied the right of completing a course that they paid a great deal of money for?”

"The impact on reputation is going to be great," said Alex Katsomitros, a research analyst at The Observatory on Borderless Higher Education. "If I were a student right now thinking about studying abroad, I would think,  'Should I study in the U.K. if there’s a chance that I would be deported from the country?' ”

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