The higher education sector has been rocked by its biggest crisis over compliance with immigration rules since London Metropolitan University was stripped of its licence to sponsor overseas students in August 2012.
Glyndwr University and another 57 private colleges, including the London School of Business and Finance (LSBF), have had their licences suspended. The University of Bedfordshire and the University of West London have also been prevented from taking any new international students, although their licences are intact.
The shock move came after an investigation into fraud in English language testing. But the government probe, which began in February, appears to have been substantially wider in scope and looked into student tax records to uncover illegal working. An investigation into the London branch campuses of UK universities – where the “worst abuse” is alleged to be taking place – will now be carried out by the Quality Assurance Agency.
According to the immigration minister James Brokenshire, who announced the suspensions to the House of Commons on 24 June, as well as looking at language testing fraud, immigration officials looked into universities and colleges where there were “wider concerns about their conduct”.
They used tax data to uncover a “number” of international students at universities earning more than £20,000 a year despite their being prohibited from working more than 20 hours a week.
He also highlighted that while international students at privately funded colleges “are not allowed to work at all”, the LSBF had 290 foreign students who worked and paid tax last year.
In February this year, Times Higher Education reported that the Home Office had had concerns over a partnership between Glyndwr and the LSBF where the university sponsored international students for immigration purposes so they could work but the LSBF provided teaching and collected tuition fees. However, it is not clear if the current Home Office investigation considered this.
The government investigation into fraudulent language tests stems from a BBC Panorama investigation, aired in February.
After the programme, the Home Office suspended Educational Testing Service, an English language testing company, from administering tests for immigration purposes.
According to Mr Brokenshire’s statement earlier this week, data provided by ETS showed that in 2012 and 2013 there were 29,000 “invalid” test results in the UK and a further 19,000 that were “questionable”, although the “true totals will be higher”.
The investigation went on to uncover 230 students with invalid results who were sponsored by Glyndwr, while the number at the University of West London was 210.
Previous student visa clampdowns – such as the revocation of London Met’s visa licence, which was reinstated in April 2013 – have led to claims that the government is unfairly targeting the higher education sector.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and the former special adviser to universities and science minister David Willetts, said “clearly” there were “genuine problems” that needed tackling, “but responsibility for sorting them out must be shared”. “The immigration minister is pointing his finger at the university sector”, he said, but “it is imperative that everyone works together to tackle the issues rather than playing a blame game that risks wider reputational damage”.
A spokesman for Glyndwr said that the university was “deeply upset” that its licence had been suspended.
“We have partnerships with a number of suppliers and are incredibly disappointed to have been the subject of any deception or activity that would put that licence under threat,” he said.
A spokesman for Bedfordshire said: “We have audited all current students who have progressed to us from ETS for attendance, location of residence, academic progression and English language capability, as well as undertaking other tests for reassurance as to the credibility of these students.”
Peter John, West London’s vice-chancellor, said: “We will be working closely with UK Visas and Immigration over the next seven days and will issue a further statement after that time.”
An LSBF spokesman said the institution was “surprised and disappointed” by the suspensions. “We take our commitments very seriously and we will work closely with UKVI to resolve this situation swiftly.”