In the past year, more than 19,000 international students were told to leave the UK or were barred from entering the country in the government’s crackdown on allegations of language qualification fraud.
Home Office statistics show that decisions to refuse a visa application, to curtail an existing visa or to remove a student were made in “more than 19,700” cases after the suspension of overseas recruitment at three universities and dozens of colleges in June 2014.
The figures, for the year to April 2015, also reveal that 900 of these students were held in detention centres after being served with removal notices.
Although the universities involved were eventually allowed to start recruiting again, the data show that the Home Office action resulted in 84 private colleges losing their visa sponsorship rights. The licences of five institutions remain suspended.
Some of the students who were told to leave had been found to have cheated to get an English language qualification for their visa application. A total of 33,725 invalid results were identified, the Home Office said. Others were judged to have had “questionable” scores, often because they had attended a test centre where large numbers of invalid scores were discovered. There were 22,694 such incidents.
But some students who had their visas curtailed had enrolled in good faith at a college that later lost its licence, it is believed.
Among the students who were told to leave may be some who were ultimately able to remain because they found a place at another college and were therefore eligible for a new visa. But the National Union of Students said that the number in this category was likely to be small. Few of those affected had their tuition fees refunded, and colleges were nervous of taking them on for fear that their own sponsorship status could be affected.
Shreya Paudel, the union’s international students’ officer, said that there had been “little evidence” against most of the learners involved. “These statistics expose a shocking example of the government scapegoating international students.”
A Home Office spokesman said that removal action had been taken only “against people where there is clear evidence that they cheated in a test”. Individuals whose scores were deemed questionable were invited to take another test “to demonstrate their language competence”.
“The student immigration system inherited in 2010 was open to widespread abuse,” the spokesman said. “In its place, we are building an immigration system that works in the national interest by attracting the brightest and best to study in our world-class universities, not allowing bogus colleges to cheat the rules.”
Universities will be watching to see if the government tones down policies and rhetoric that have been blamed for a reduction in the number of students coming to the UK from some key countries.
The first challenge could be the immigration bill, announced in the Queen’s Speech on 27 May. This is set to extend the principle of “deport first, appeal later” from criminal cases only to all immigration cases, and could affect students.
Meanwhile, there are concerns about a possible shortage of language testing centres for students overseas hoping to study at private colleges or pathway providers in the UK. The fraud investigation led to Educational Testing Service, which offered the qualifications that were targeted, being banned from the UK market. Just one overseas provider of approved tests remains.