The week in higher education

September 6, 2012

• How has the London Met visa ban played abroad? In short, terribly. "5,000 Pakistani students in UK face deportation in 60 days", screamed a Daily News headline on 31 August (the story mistakenly reporting that other UK universities face the loss of visa licences in a Home Office crackdown on "bogus" students). "More than 600 Chinese students are facing deportation", claimed the Shanghai Daily on 31 August. A Hindustan Times comment piece on 1 September said that "many foreign universities lure gullible Indian students with the promise of employment during and after studies...Most of the time, the students end up duped and return home to debt and unemployment. Families often mortgage all their assets...and when things do not work out, they are literally driven to penury." Echoing these thoughts, Sudeshna Sen from India's Economic Times asked: "Who wants to be at the mercy of a mercurial Home Office, misbehaving fellow students or admin office goof-ups?"

• While the UK university sector reaches fever pitch over immigration worries, the US has been rocked by an alleged cheating scandal at a top Ivy League university that may have involved more than 100 students. An investigation by Harvard University's College Administrative Board found that as many as 125 students had questions to answer about the similarity of their answers on a take-home politics examination, The Daily Telegraph reported on 1 September. If found guilty by a subcommittee of the board, the students face a one-year suspension.

• The UK Border Agency's decision on London Met was not the only immigration controversy to hit the sector this week. A lecturer whose picture became a defining image of the London 7/7 bombings in 2005 fears he could be deported. According to The Sunday Telegraph on 2 September, John Tulloch, who has held posts at UK institutions including a professorship in communications at Brunel University, has been told he cannot permanently remain in the UK - despite being born to British parents in pre-independence India - because he does not have full UK citizenship. Professor Tulloch - an image of whom, bloodied and bandaged, was carried by media worldwide after he was caught up in the Edgware Road Tube bombing on 7 July 2005 - told the newspaper he was "gobsmacked" at the prospect that he might have to leave the country.

• A £9.8 billion deficit has opened up in the Universities Superannuation Scheme, thanks to the poor economic climate and "quantitative easing". Liabilities for the UK's second-largest pension scheme, which has 300,000 members, most based in pre-1992 universities, rose to £43.7 billion against £33.9 billion in assets, according to a valuation on 31 March 2012. It means the funding level is just 77 per cent - compared with 92 per cent at the previous triennial valuation in March 2011, which reported a £2.9 billion shortfall. The deteriorating balance sheet has been blamed on the historically low yields from long-dated UK government bonds (gilts) caused by the Bank of England's purchase of gilts under quantitative easing. USS liabilities are calculated by "discounting" future payments to pension members by a factor based on gilt yields. Low returns from gilts produce a lower discount on liabilities - creating the larger deficit. However, the revised balance sheet "does not mean that the future cash flows are significantly different from those predicted at the last valuation", a USS report released on 4 September says.

• Meanwhile, as London Met announced legal action against the UKBA, the Public Accounts Committee firmly put the boot into government policy on student immigration. The group of MPs said that changes to the student visa system in 2009 - when Labour was in power - had been "poorly planned and ill thought out". According to the select committee, measures relied on under the old system - such as spot-check interviews by entry clearance officers - were discontinued before new checks were in place. In addition, the UKBA had visited only 30 per cent of the education institutions it had licensed by March 2009 when the system changed. The gap in controls facilitated a "surge" in student visas: in 2009, around 40,000 to 50,000 extra migrants came to the UK to work rather than study, the committee found.

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