LONDON — Around 2,600 foreign students could be deported from Britain after their university was stripped of its ability to sponsor visas for pupils beyond the European Union, the government announced Thursday. The move provoked dismay from students and accusations that the move by the Conservative-led government, which is bent on reducing immigration, could damage Britain's global reputation.
London Metropolitan University has lost its "highly trusted status" because a survey found significant problems with the qualifications of many of its foreign students, Immigration Minister Damian Green said.
In a "significant proportion" of cases, there was no documentation that students had a good standard of English, Green said, and there was no proof that half of those sampled were attending lectures. He said the sampling of the university's foreign students indicated that more than a quarter did not have current permission to be in the country.
"Any one of those breaches would be serious," Green told BBC radio. "We found all three of those breaches at London Metropolitan."
A degree from a U.K. university is highly prized by many students abroad, and those from outside the European Union often pay higher fees than residents. The British government, which has cracked down on immigration in multiple ways, has pointed to student visas as a category ripe for abuse by those who may instead be looking for work.
London Metropolitan has 30,000 students, and 2,600 are affected by the government's decision, said university spokesman Nick Hansen. Students from other European Union countries don't need visas.
The affected students will have 60 days to find new sponsors once they are formally notified by the government, or they could be deported. A task force has been set up to help genuine students who otherwise qualify for visas, Universities Minister David Willetts said, but with the fall term imminent students have little time to find new sponsors and courses.
Emmanuel Egwu, a 24-year-old Nigerian, said he was told he would be unable to do his final year of his three-year course in forensic sciences at London Metropolitan. "I have been paying loads of tuition fees, my parents have been spending a lot of money, selling properties back home to make sure my tuition fees have been paid. It's like flushing money down the toilet," Egwu said.
It was not clear why the affected students currently at London Metropolitan's system were not being allowed to simply finish their courses of study.
The government has not accused London Metropolitan of fraudulently accepting foreign students, and there was no indication its academic accreditation is under threat. The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education said in 2010 about London Metropolitan: "Confidence can reasonably be placed in the soundness of the institution's present and likely future management of the academic standards of its awards."
London Metropolitan was formed in 2002 when London Guildhall University and the University of North London merged, and it traces its history to the founding of the City of London College in 1861.
Vice Chancellor Malcolm Gillies said London Metropolitan was "working with the best lawyers in the country" to challenge the ruling by the U.K. Border Agency. "I would go so far as to say that UKBA has been rewriting its own guidelines on this issue and this is something which should cause concern to all universities in the U.K.," Gillies said.
Two years ago, Green said he feared that the number of visas issued annually to students and dependents – some 320,000 at the time – was not sustainable. A Home Office report found that more than 20 percent of those granted student visas in 2004 were still in the country five years later.
In May, the government launched Operation Mayapple "to crack down on students and other migrants staying in the U.K. longer than permitted." By last month, the Home Office said that program had sent home 2,000 illegal migrants. Recent regulations also have set a five-year limit on completing an undergraduate degree.
The border agency insisted that in the London Metropolitan case, "these are problems with one university, not the whole sector." But education officials expressed fear that the episode could damage Britain's future efforts to attract foreign students, something that also hurts the schools' budgets.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, a group representing higher education institutions, called the government's action "surprising and disproportionate."
"It is one thing, raising issues if they have them with London Met and, if appropriate, penalizing the university ... but penalizing legitimate international students is disproportionate and it is damaging to our international reputation," Dandridge said.
"No matter how this is dressed up, the damaging message that the U.K. deports foreign students studying at U.K. universities will reach all corners of the globe," said Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union. "The last thing we can afford to do is send a message that international students are no longer welcome here."
However, the government had its supporters.
Andrew Green, chairman of Migration Watch UK, which campaigns for tighter control of immigration, said "there is crystal clear evidence of substantial abuse" of student visas. "The government (is) absolutely right to crack down on this," he said.