MP criticises treatment of Bedfordshire during overseas student recruitment inquiry

Sector leaders alarmed at ‘inappropriate’ naming of university while Home Office visa audit was ongoing

August 14, 2014

The decision to halt the University of Bedfordshire’s recruitment of international students prior to a Home Office visa investigation, and to name it in Parliament, has been criticised after the institution was given the all-clear.

Bedfordshire was informed last week that it could resume taking students from outside the European Union after a detailed audit by UK Visas and Immigration officials, who said that its visa approval and student monitoring processes were robust.

The removal of sanctions ends six weeks of uncertainty about the university’s visa status after Bedfordshire was told to cease overseas recruitment because some of its students had apparently sat English language tests operated by the firm ETS in which cheating was found to be rife.

The university, whose vice-chancellor is former Labour higher education minister Bill Rammell, was named in the House of Commons by immigration minister James Brokenshire on 24 June as having potentially accepted students with questionable language qualifications.

At that time, Mr Brokenshire said that Bedfordshire and the University of West London would have their ability to issue Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies letters halted – although their sponsor licences were not suspended.

But a local MP has now questioned why Bedfordshire was in effect punished before it could answer the case.

Gavin Shuker, Labour MP for Luton South, said that he believed it was “inappropriate” for Bedfordshire to be treated in the manner it was.

“Many will be left asking what motivated the government to target Bedfordshire in this way,” he added.

Mr Shuker’s concerns have been echoed by senior higher education leaders, who have privately said that they are alarmed by the “unprecedented” naming of Bedfordshire while investigations were ongoing.

Edward Acton, vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia, who has led Universities UK’s lobbying on student visa issues, said: “The Home Office’s handling has needlessly damaged UK universities, a vital national interest.

“If the damage was unintended, the Home Office needs to acknowledge its error and avoid repetition.”

UWL is still waiting to hear from UKVI about the results of its audit and remains unable to recruit further international students.

But sector figures have also questioned the statutory basis of the CAS cessation, which is likely to have deterred some students from applying to Bedfordshire in a key recruitment period.

Bedfordshire declined to comment on the fairness of the CAS cessation.

A Home Office spokeswoman said that it had “worked closely with the University of Bedfordshire to improve their standards for recruiting international students”. It would “continue to work with them to ensure these standards are maintained”, she added.

The Home Office refused to release details about the number of Bedfordshire students who took the discredited ETS qualifications. It is thought to be less than 100 out of the overall 52,000 questionable tests involved in the national investigation.

The Home Office had named all those that it took action against as part of the investigation into the suspected abuse of language qualifications, the spokeswoman said.

That investigation had also led to the sponsor licences of 57 colleges and one university – Glyndwr University – being suspended. Glyndwr is still waiting to hear about its audit results.

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