Three universities and 57 private colleges have been told they cannot sponsor any new international students in a major crackdown on suspect English language qualifications.
In a statement to the House of Commons on 24 June, immigration minister James Brokenshire said he was taking the action in light of “detailed and wide-ranging investigation into actions by organised criminals to falsify English language tests for student visa applicants”.
It follows a BBC Panorama expose in February which revealed systematic cheating in tests from an organisation called the Educational Testing Service (ETS).
More than 29,000 invalid results and 19,000 questionable results had been identified so far, though “it is likely that the true totals will be higher,” said Mr Brokenshire, who condemned the “organised criminality” behind the fraud.
Mr Brokenshire said the Home Office had suspended the highly trusted status of Glyndwr University, in north Wales, which enables it to sponsor the visas of non-European Union students.
Some 230 students sponsored by Glyndwr had been identified as having invalid test results provided by ETS – a figure rising to 350 if questionable scores were counted.
The Home Office has also told the University of Bedfordshire and the University of West London that “they are no longer allowed to sponsor new students pending further investigations which will decide whether they too should be suspended”, Mr Brokenshire added.
At UWL, the number of sponsored students with invalid scores stood at 210 – rising to 290 if questionable ones were included, he said.
In addition, Mr Brokenshire said the licences of 57 private further education colleges to recruit foreign students had been suspended. According to an official list seen by Times Higher Education, they include the London School of Business and Finance (LSBF).
Further abuse was also taking place in the London sub-campuses of other UK universities, but they had not been suspended as they were taking steps to resolve the issues, Mr Brokenshire added.
However, the Quality Assurance Agency had been asked to examine the London campuses to see whether any further action should be taken against parent institutions, he said.
Immigration officers had also established that a number of overseas university students were earning more than £20,000 a year despite the rule that they must not work more than 20 hours a week during term time, he said.
One university student was working a 60-hour week for six months, he said.
Overseas students at several private colleges are not allowed to work, yet one college - LSBF - has 290 foreign students who worked and paid tax last year, he added.
A Glyndwr spokesman said the university was “deeply upset” that its sponsor licence had been suspended and was working with UK Visas and Immigration “to investigate the issues raised”.
Bedfordshire said it had audited “all current students who have progressed to us from ETS” and this had enabled it to “reassure” UKVI that there was no “evidence of any organised attack” on the university’s compliance with immigration rules.
West London vice-chancellor Peter John said it would be “working closely with UKVI over the next seven days and will issue a further statement after that time”.
A spokesman for LSBF said it was “surprised and disappointed” by the visa licence suspensions. “We take our commitments very seriously and we will work closely with UKVI to resolve this situation swiftly in the near future,” he said.
Liam Byrne, shadow minister for universities, science and skills, said Labour supported “any action” that protects the “hard-earned reputation” of UK higher education “but today’s threat has come from another immigration crisis that’s happened on this government’s watch”.
Sir Christopher Snowden, president of Universities UK, said: “The Home Office must work with the institutions in question to address the issues identified, without negatively impacting international students and applicants at these universities. It is important that current international students at these institutions are reassured that they will not be affected by this action.”