There's a lot of it about, warns ex-Home Office director over visa problems

Visa compliance problems similar to those discovered at London Metropolitan University can be found at many other UK universities, a former Home Office director has said.

September 6, 2012

Don Ingham, who spent more than 30 years working in border control, now runs Veristat Immigration Consultancy, which advises educational bodies on student visa issues.

Mr Ingham, a former director of managed migration at the Home Office, said the difficulties that prompted the UK Border Agency to strip London Met of its non-EU student visa licence "were not uncommon ... at other universities", adding: "It is about having processes and procedures that undertake appropriate vetting of students before they arrive in the UK."

Mr Ingham continued: "This has probably not been regarded as a priority by universities - this decision will certainly change that now."

The UKBA said it had revoked London Met's right to teach students from outside the European Union because it had "failed to address serious, systemic problems" identified six months ago.

More than 60 per cent of the 600-plus student files surveyed had one or more problems with them, Damian Green, then immigration minister, told the House of Commons on 3 September.

He said that more than a quarter of the 101 students sampled were studying at the university when they had no leave to remain in this country - making them, in effect, illegal immigrants.

But Mr Ingham noted that it was quite easy to allow students' right to remain to lapse if robust procedures were not in place.

"Students will arrive with a valid visa, which then expires partway through a course," he said.

"A university needs to be monitoring when students' visas expire and chase them to make sure they apply for a confirmation of acceptance for studies. If a student applies after the visa has expired, they do not have permission to stay in the country while their application is processed.

"It is sometimes presented as a university taking people without permission to study. It's actually more of a technical issue of getting students to apply in time."

Other problems highlighted at London Met - which has strongly contested many of the UKBA's claims - included the failure to provide evidence that students had attained mandatory levels of English language proficiency in 20 out of 50 checked files.

Mr Ingham said it was possible that London Met had students who joined before the government changed English language proficiency requirements. "Everyone needs a formal certificate proving their English levels now," he added.

A lack of evidence to confirm attendance was also a reason for the overseas student ban, Mr Green said.

Mr Ingham said universities did not need to ensure students turned up to every lecture - just at "key points" such as tutorials or seminars. "However, you do need the cooperation of academics, making them aware of the importance of the licence," he said.

"Some might say 'we are not schoolteachers' or oppose the policy, and that isn't helpful."

Tracking the attendance of around 30,000 students across London Met's campuses and buildings should not be overly difficult, Mr Ingham concluded.

"If you are Ford [in] Dagenham, you will have 30,000 people on site - they will certainly be checking if people turn up or not."

jack.grove@tsleducation.com.

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