Metropolitan University visa row: are foreign students welcome?

Debate rages over whether decision to remove visa privileges from London university will put off foreign students

LAST UPDATED AT 14:25 ON Fri 31 Aug 2012

THE GOVERNMENT has been accused of damaging the UK's international reputation for educational excellence, following the decision to strip London Metropolitan University of its ability to award student visas. Critics fear that the move sends a message to foreign students that they "aren't welcome here".

On Thursday, ministers condemned LMU's "serious systemic failure" over immigration protocol after it emerged that over a quarter of the university's non-EU students lacked the correct papers and there was little evidence that many were attending courses. LMU has now been stripped of its Highly Trusted Status, which allowed it to issue student visas. Those due to enrol in September have now been advised not to travel to the UK.

But according to Martin Freedman of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the repercussions of LMU's punishment will extend far beyond the university itself, increasing the likelihood that UK universities will miss out on "top overseas students".

The Financial Times condemns both the decision, "which seems both arbitrary and disproportionate", and the wider implications of government policy imposing a cap on the number of foreign students, arguing that this will "cast a serious reputational blight over the wider sector".

However, the university's apparent failure to monitor its students has also drawn sharp criticism. In an appearance on BBC Newsnight, Labour MP Frank Field claimed that the university has done "more damage to the position of British universities seeking overseas students than any other action you can imagine." Sir Andrew Green, chairman of pressure group Migration Watch UK, also saw this as a positive step towards clamping down on immigration. "It's been clear for some time that some of the lesser universities and colleges have been more interested in selling immigration than education," he said.

The London Met announcement came as figures from the Office for National Statistics showed 75,000 fewer student visas were granted in the year to June – around 283,000 in total – a drop of 21 per cent on the previous 12 months.

Foreign students contribute a sizeable amount to the UK economy each year, with estimates reaching as high as £12.5bn. "No matter how this is dressed up, the damaging message that the UK deports foreign students at UK universities will reach all corners of the globe," said Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, in The Independent. "The last thing we can afford to do is send the message that international students are no longer welcome." · 

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