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London Metropolitan University

Volume 549: debated on Monday 3 September 2012

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on the decision by the UK Border Agency to remove tier 4 sponsorship status from London Metropolitan university.

The UK Border Agency has been working closely and continually with London Metropolitan university since March to address its systemic issues. In the most recent audit, the UKBA found concerns in three specific areas: students studying without permission to be in this country, how international students are recruited and the attendance monitoring of students. In those circumstances, allowing London Met to continue to sponsor and teach international students was not an option.

Institutions must comply with the rules, whether they sponsor 10, 100 or 1,000 international students. That includes having a system to check that students have the right visas to study in the UK, and monitoring the attendance of students. Universities must ensure that students can speak English and have the right qualifications to study at degree level. The UKBA found systemic failures that meant that London Met had not been able to ensure the appropriate admission and tracking of students from abroad.

We understand that genuine international students at London Met will be concerned. That is why a taskforce has been created, which includes the Higher Education Funding Council for England, Universities UK, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the UK Border Agency and the National Union of Students. The taskforce is working with London Metropolitan university to help genuine, appropriately qualified students find another education provider to sponsor them. Three UKBA staff are currently based in a help centre set up by London Met to support and advise students.

The UK Border Agency will contact students of revoked institutions when they curtail their leave. It is only when students have their leave curtailed that they will have 60 days to find a new institution or leave the country. This 60-day period does not begin when the institution is revoked. UKBA recognises the unique situation with London Metropolitan university and will not begin writing to students to curtail their leave until 1 October.

But let us be clear: these particular problems have been identified at one university, not the whole sector. The Government recognise the important contribution that international students make to the UK’s economy, and to making British universities among the best in the world. Britain is and will remain a top-class destination for top-class international students.

Education providers have to meet strict standards, ensuring that they provide high-quality education, and take their immigration responsibilities seriously. I am sure that the House agrees that enforcing these strict standards is an important role for UKBA, and a vital part of restoring confidence in our immigration system.

It is interesting that the Minister put no figures whatever on the number of students at London Met university who have apparently not fulfilled UKBA’s requirements. One can only begin to get the impression that the Government want to pick on a university that has done good work in assisting overseas students as well as helping a lot of people into higher education who would not otherwise have had that chance.

The Minister wrote to me at the weekend and said:

“Those students however who are already attending the University and who have valid leave to remain do not have to do anything immediately.”

That is a strangely complacent answer to give the 2,600 students at London Met university who paid good money to study hard in order to achieve qualifications to go home. If they cannot find another university, are unable to complete their courses and subsequently deported, what impression will their home country have of Britain? What attitude will those countries have towards this country in future when, through no fault of their own, students have been denied the right to complete a course for which they paid a great deal of money? The image that that presents around the world is appalling—it suggests that overseas students may well be deported from this country because of a decision made by the UK Border Agency without its providing any detail about the basis of it.

Why cannot the Government do a couple of things? First, they should allow the 2,600 students to complete their courses at London Met university rather than have to try to find somewhere at the beginning of September when courses are starting in a few weeks. Secondly, they should work with the university to ensure that if things have gone wrong, they can be put right because the same thing could happen at any other college or university. One gets the impression that the decision to try to crack down on bogus English language schools some years ago—and no one has any time for bogus language schools—has been transferred to the higher education sector.

Almost a third of London Met university’s income comes from overseas students. The same figures apply to many other higher education institutions. The decision throws into jeopardy the very future of that university and damages the image of British higher education around the world. Every university in this country has cause for concern about UKBA’s decision. I ask the Minister please to think again, reverse the decision, allow those students to complete their courses and the university to continue to recruit overseas students after the systems have been put in place to ensure that the law is correctly followed. That would support Britain’s higher education sector. Instead, the Government have chosen to attack it, attacking every university and college in the process. I ask them please to change their mind.

The hon. Gentleman asks for some figures, so let me give him some from the samples considered by UKBA. Some 101 students whose visas had already been refused were selected. Of those who had no right to be in this country studying, 25% were studying at London Metropolitan university. A wider sample was taken of two separate random groups of 300 students—600 students. More than 60% of students were involved in one or other of the problems that I identified in my answer to the hon. Gentleman’s original question. It was not a small, isolated number of students; the sampling showed significant systemic problems throughout. The hon. Gentleman appeals for all the students concerned to be allowed to carry on studying in this country, but he cannot seriously believe that someone who has no right to be here, is not educationally qualified and does not speak English to a level that enables them to benefit from a university course in this country, should be allowed to stay in this country.

The hon. Gentleman’s second main point was that the situation damages the university sector as a whole. What damages the university sector as a whole is when individual institutions do not meet their proper obligations under the immigration rules. For years, what has damaged confidence in the immigration system is that those rules have not been properly enforced. This Government are determined properly to enforce the rules set down by the House.

Has my hon. Friend had the opportunity of seeing the voluminous evidence produced in various reports by the Home Affairs Committee on the abuse of student status in the immigration system? Given the circumstances that have now arisen, would it not have been unacceptable if the Government had ignored that breach of immigration control and sought to take no action? My hon. Friend has taken an entirely appropriate course.

I am grateful for the support of my hon. Friend and, more widely, of the Home Affairs Committee. For some time, it has urged me and my predecessors in the previous Government to ensure that proper action is taken against those who abuse the student visa system. We have already taken extremely effective action against the bogus colleges referred to by the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) in his initial question, and over 500 fewer institutions are able to bring in foreign students as a result of the tough and proper requirements that we have placed on those colleges. If the rules apply to the private sector, they must apply to the public sector as well. Universities must obey the rules just as much as private colleges.

The Opposition fully support the Government’s attempts to tackle bogus colleges and stop immigration fraud. If colleges are incapable of ensuring that every applicant is a bona fide student and speaks English sufficiently well to study, they should lose their highly trusted status. However, our universities are vital to Britain’s economic future. We need to foster an international reputation for high-value education, not undermine it. The Government have engaged in classic diversionary tactics. First, they briefed the press on Saturday that London Met was going to lose its highly trusted status. On Sunday, the Minister denied it on the radio, but then announced it—surprise, surprise—on the day that statistics showing that the Government have no prospect of reaching their declared immigration target were published. Talk about dither!

Will the Minister confirm precisely how many of the 2,700 students with certificates to attend studies at London Met are, in his terms, illegitimate—precisely how many? How many are already in the country and how will the Minister establish their whereabouts? How many does he expect to seek to deport, and when? What will happen to those arriving at British ports in forthcoming days? The Minister accepts that the vast majority of London Met students are legitimate, genuine. Is he really saying to a foreign student who has saved up for years, paid their way, done nothing wrong and studied hard for two years at London Met, that they should simply pack their bags and go back home? I hope not.

The Government have acted at the most disruptive time of year, in the most disruptive way—yet more ministerial incompetence. Legitimate international students bring in £3.3 billion to this country’s economy. I just say to the Minister, “Baby”, “Bathwater.”

Let me try to find some substance to respond to in the hon. Gentleman’s rant. On his first point, I pray in aid something that I know he is familiar with, as I know he is assiduous in following his brief: the conclusion of the most recent report from the Home Affairs Committee on the work of the UK Border Agency. It was published on 23 July and states:

“If a sponsor is failing to comply with their duties or is deceiving the Agency then their licence should be revoked. The Agency should take tough enforcement action against those who abuse the immigration system.”

I am very glad that within weeks of making that recommendation the Committee has been able to see the Government carrying it out.

The hon. Gentleman made the ludicrous point that this announcement was made on the same day as the immigration figures were published. I rather regret that, because I would have liked more coverage of net migration coming down by 36,000 and visas being issued at their lowest level since 2005, precisely because the figures show that—after the years of neglect under the Labour Government—we now have a Government who are effective in bringing immigration down.

The hon. Gentleman asked a specific question about arrivals. The Border Force is instructed to allow into the country those who arrive with a visa for London Metropolitan university. We will give them temporary leave to remain and they can take part in the taskforce process. The taskforce is setting up a clearing house to find other sources. He also asked about numbers, but he may not have been following the story closely enough. The whole point about the problem with London Metropolitan’s system is that it does not know whether the students are turning up for lectures. It does not know whether they can speak English or not. As I have already detailed, of the sample of 600, more than 60% have one or more problems. It is precisely because London Metropolitan does not know the status of its students that we say that it has a systemic problem, and that is why we have had to revoke its licence.

Order. I appeal to colleagues for short questions and indeed to the Minister for mercifully shorter answers.

London Met, part of which is in my constituency, has been a troubled institution. I accept, with some regret, that the UKBA needed to make a stand. I am glad that the Minister has gone into some detail about the arrangements that are being made, but does he recognise that there is a strong duty of care owed by the UKBA and the whole higher education organisation to those students who are about to start the final year of their studies? They may well have been at London Met for two or three years, and they must be looked after. If necessary, I hope that he will make a special case for some of those students in the weeks ahead.

That is precisely why we have set up the taskforce immediately with two main tasks, one of which is to find new courses and institutions that are willing to take London Met’s students. It will then move on to individual cases and ensure that those who are genuine students can obtain the appropriate visas and leave to remain to attend the courses that they wish to attend. The taskforce is up and running already, and happily several institutions are looking to take on former London Metropolitan students.

I have a general declaration on the register.

I put it to the Minister that nobody could possibly be against rigour in this area, but the sector as a whole has been bedevilled by bellicose statements, by constant changes in the rules and, in this case, by the timing. Above all, is not the message being sent to the global education community that this country is not welcoming those students who previously would have seen Britain as their first choice for university education?

I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman has connections with an institution that is itself closely connected with London Metropolitan—I am not aware of any problems with that other institution. The message being sent out is quite clear: as I have said, Britain absolutely welcomes the brightest and the best; we want the best students from around the world coming to our universities, some of which are themselves among the best universities in the world. However, the message also has to go out to the university sector and individual students that they have to be genuine students, be able to speak English and be properly qualified to benefit from a university education in this country, and that they cannot use a student visa as a loophole in our immigration system to come here and work. That went on for far too long; now it is stopping.

The Minister mentions the Home Affairs Committee report. One of its reports recently urged the Government to remove students from the immigration statistics and instead use the OECD measure. If he agreed to that recommendation, it would surely remove much of the push for such heavy-handed, rhetoric-induced action by the UKBA.

Of course, I reject the hon. Gentleman’s point that this is heavy-handed—and it is the opposite of rhetoric. Instead of years of Immigration Ministers from the previous Government talking tough and acting weak, we now have a Government who are acting tough as well. On the point about immigration statistics, it is a UN definition that an immigrant is somebody who comes to a country with the intention of staying for more than one year. Students who come for less than one year do not count in the immigration statistics. Students who come for more than one year do count. It would be simply perverse to say that someone coming here for a four-year course is less of an immigrant than somebody who comes here to work for 15 months on a work visa. That would be simply absurd.

I am glad that the Minister reads the Home Affairs Committee reports with such care. He is right that action has to be taken to deal with immigration abuses. This morning, however, I went to the university and met a number of international students. Only one has been offered an alternative course, but he has to repeat his year, pay another set of fees and pay the UKBA visa fee. Incidentally, the Minister talked about the taskforce, but it has not yet arrived—there is no taskforce at the university. It is due in next week. Will he confirm that there were no dealings between the UKBA and the university between 16 July and 7.45 pm on 29 August, and that there are no other universities on his list for removal of this status?

The right hon. Gentleman asks two substantive questions. His first point is simply wrong. The process started in March, and there were meetings in May. London Metropolitan submitted a representations pack to the UKBA in May and, as he said, the suspension came on 16 July. There was a meeting between London Met’s vice-chancellor, his senior staff and their lawyers, and the UKBA on 23 July, and an audit took place on 3, 6 and 7 August. London Met’s lawyers put in submissions on 8 August and 24 August, and the revocation was on 29 August. It is simply not the case, then, that there were no meetings in between—there was continual contact.

The right hon. Gentleman made a second point about other universities. As he will know, and as his Committee constantly recommends, the UKBA carries out a continual series of audit visits to institutions—both universities and other educational institutions—and will continue to do so. I can say, factually, that at the moment no other university has had its licence to bring in non-EU students suspended.

Reducing immigration levels is important to my constituents, who welcomed the admission by the Leader of the Opposition earlier in the year that there had been uncontrolled immigration under the previous Government. May I urge the Minister, therefore, to reform all routes of entry into the UK, including the student visa route, in order to build on the reductions he has already achieved?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s support. She is quite right. As the House knows, about two thirds of all visas issued to people coming to this country are student visas, and there has been very widespread abuse of this route in recent years. That is why the enforcement action to ensure that, whether in the private or public sector, we get rid of that abuse is good not only for our immigration system but, in the long run, for our education system, because around the world people will know that British education is being properly monitored and run.

How can the Minister believe that punishing students who are entitled to be at London Metropolitan university fits in with any British feeling of fairness?

That is precisely why we have set up the taskforce, which will help those individual students—of course there will be genuine students: some will be in the middle of their courses and some will be about to arrive for them—and ensure that, as fast as possible, they can have courses of equivalent value and that the credits they have built up can be carried over to their new courses, so that there is no unfairness to those genuine individual students.

I warmly welcome my hon. Friend’s statement and endorse the decision of the UKBA. Although there will be genuine foreign students who are concerned and anxious, does he agree that there is only one institution to blame for their predicament, and that is London Met university?

I agree with my hon. Friend that the vast majority of universities have been able to cope with the recent growth in foreign students without any problems. We have had to suspend the licence of two other universities since we started effective enforcement action. Both universities managed quickly to resolve the situation and ensure that they could continue as sponsors. That is not the case with London Metropolitan, where the situation is significantly more serious than any previous case we have seen. Indeed, the institution itself must bear the responsibility for what happened in this case.

Since the third-year students came to this country, the visa conditions have changed. For those third-year students who are unable to secure a new university course within the 60-day period, will the Minister apply the same visa conditions that applied when they came to this country—with the full expectation of finishing their courses at London Met—so that their partners will therefore be allowed to work, which for many is an important source of funding that enables them to be here?

I do not think that it would be appropriate to announce relaxations in the rules. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman may not have heard, but I have said that the curtailment letters that start the 60-day period will not go out until 1 October, to ensure that we enable those people to come and find a new course. However, he has also revealed—perhaps inadvertently—one of the problems: people are coming here as students precisely so that they or members of their family can work. People who come here to study should come here to study. That is what the student visa is meant to be for. It should not be, either directly or indirectly, a way to gain a work visa.

London Metropolitan university suggests that the UKBA’s concerns relate to a previous administration or previous management. What reassurances can the Minister give that the decision is fair and based on current processes and data, and that London Metropolitan university is not being singled out as an example?

I have heard that suggestion from London Metropolitan, which is precisely why, when the concerns were first expressed after a visit in March, the UKBA deliberately looked for contemporary samples. The figures I gave earlier to the hon. Member for Islington North relate to students who have come under the new management regime, so we are talking about up-to-date systemic problems, not historic systemic problems.

I congratulate the Minister on cutting immigration, with student visas down by over 100,000. Might his action against London Met have a further salutary effect, by showing that universities as well as colleges have to uphold immigration control?

Absolutely, and not just universities and colleges, of course, but employers too. The message that we have been sending out for some time is now getting out there. Everyone who is a highly trusted sponsor needs to behave like a highly trusted sponsor. If they cannot be highly trusted, they will no longer be a highly trusted sponsor and allowed to bring in foreign workers or foreign students.

Was the Minister as surprised as I was that the institution was not a back-street language college but a mainstream university, and that its action has damaged our standing in this market in the world? However, let me bring him back to the substantive point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn). Is there anything that this House can do to save the Government from being in the position of wishing to deport the illegal students—although none will be found—while actually deporting proper students who have paid up and should be in this country?

I can assure the right hon. Gentleman, for whose general support for this action I am grateful, that as part of a wider policy we are now doing much better at enforcing the removal of people who overstay their visas, including students. Indeed, we have run a campaign over the past few months and, in London alone, we found 2,000 over-stayers, whom we have removed. Each student at London Metropolitan will go through the visa process as normal when they get a new offer, and at that point the UKBA will be able to assess whether they are genuine students.

I called two Members from the Government side, so it is still the Opposition’s turn. I call Gisela Stuart.

May I press the Minister further on his response to the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee? Are there any other higher education institutions, specifically in the west midlands or Birmingham, whose highly trusted sponsor status the UK Border Agency is considering withdrawing?

As I said to the Chairman of the Select Committee, the UKBA carries out a continual programme of monitoring and auditing educational institutions and other institutions all around the country. In three cases that has led to the suspension of a university’s licence to bring in students, but only in this case has it led eventually to revocation. At the moment, there are no universities whose licence is suspended.

Does my hon. Friend agree that universities that allow in master’s students who cannot even string together a sentence of English let down not only the students but the whole of the British university system?

I agree. The point is often made by students at some institutions that they find themselves being taught alongside people who find it difficult to benefit from the course. That is one of the reasons that we have reintroduced the practice of interviewing people before they come here. We are doing that on a pilot basis at the moment, and it is already proving extremely useful in ensuring that people who cannot benefit from higher education in this country do not come here in the first place.

Does the Minister not accept that there is a world of difference between applying the rules and withdrawing the highly trusted sponsor status in respect of future applicants, and retrospectively penalising existing students, many of whom are here legitimately and fairly and have paid their fees? It is that element of retrospection that is so wrong and that goes against all our principles of justice in this country.

As I have said, the systemic problems at London Metropolitan are so great that it is impossible for the university itself to know who meets the required criteria. It is therefore essential to revoke its status and, to be fair to the individual students, to set up a taskforce so that they can be put back into the education system at an appropriate place to do an appropriate course as soon as possible.

It was because the previous Government had neither the will nor the intention to enforce the immigration rules that this House passed. This Government do have the intention to have properly ordered immigration rules and to enforce them properly as well.

May I return to the question of existing students, for whom the situation seems grotesquely unfair? Term starts in a month’s time, but they will not receive their letters until after 1 October. They will then have 60 days, but they will more than likely be unable to find another institution, unless that institution is given some financial incentive to take them. Could we not at least give an assurance to those students who are found to be legitimate that they will be able to continue their studies and complete their courses at London Met? Otherwise, they will all lose at least a year.

I think that the hon. Gentleman has slightly misunderstood the process. The students will not get their letters of curtailment for a month, but they obviously know now that they need to find a new course. The taskforce is operating now, so his last point about their having to waste a year will, I hope, not be true in the vast majority of cases. We have set up the taskforce, and we took action as soon as the evidence was available precisely so that we would not have to do so in the middle of anyone’s course.

Order. I apologise to colleagues who did not get in, but time is against us and we must now move on.