The UK Border Agency has clarified that universities do not need separate or biometric attendance monitoring systems for international students after confusion in the sector over how strict checks should be.
Universities UK said that the move was a “step in the right direction” for the often fraught relationship between the sector and the agency.
Students’ unions, meanwhile, have called for a scaling-back of attendance checks that make international students feel like “visa cheats”.
Institutions must prove to the UKBA that international students are engaging with their studies if they want a licence to sponsor them.
But universities have been unclear whether international students should have to “check in” more often than domestic students, and whether it was necessary to confirm a student’s attendance physically to prevent a friend signing them in.
In a letter to sector bodies sent on 15 February, the UKBA clarified that universities do not need separate, tougher attendance systems for international students, and that they “do not necessarily need to consider introducing physical checks” such as fingerprinting.
Daniel Stevens, international students officer at the National Union of Students, said that some universities had implemented much tougher monitoring regimes after London Metropolitan University was stripped of its licence to sponsor international students in August 2012.
Describing the UKBA’s clarification as a “small move”, he recommended that there be an end to “draconian monitoring practices that treat international students with suspicion”.
Checks and balances
Without specific guidance, universities have created a variety of rules for overseas students. Coventry University requires international undergraduates to check in three times a week with staff who confirm their identities, while the University of the Arts London requires them to check in once a week.
In the wake of the UKBA’s clarification, the UAL students’ union posted a statement on its website asking the university to stop checking attendance once a week because “international students should be welcomed into the UK, not treated like visa cheats”.
Stephen Marshall, university secretary and registrar at the UAL, said the institution would “look carefully at the UKBA’s statement and decide how to proceed”.
But a spokesman for Coventry defended its policy as “fair and robust” and said the university had “no immediate plans” to change it.
The UKBA has also dropped the requirement for universities to inform it if an international student misses 10 expected appointments, the letter says.
In addition, the letter outlines plans to create a dedicated team of inspectors for higher education institutions. “This team will develop a detailed working knowledge of the sector which should help to improve the consistency of audits,” it explains.
UKBA officers have not always fully understood how universities operate because they inspect a variety of sponsors, including shops and restaurants, Mr Stevens said.
A spokeswoman for UUK said that it was “vital that UKBA officials become more familiar with the higher education system to ensure an efficient, proportionate and risk-based approach to university compliance”.
A UKBA spokeswoman said that its compliance officers were “fully trained and have the skills and knowledge to carry out their duties effectively”.
The heightened concern over attendance monitoring has attracted commercial interest from BQu, a firm selling fingerprint scanners that can track when students are failing to attend classes.
“Organisations that are unable to provide acceptable evidence of attendance…are at grave risk of losing their ‘Highly Trusted Status’, which enables them to sponsor overseas students,” the company warns in an email advertising its attendance monitoring system, which was first targeted at colleges but is now being promoted to universities.
Ian Pack, head of business development at BQu, said that there had been a recent “swell” of interest in the system from universities.
Following the revocation of London Met’s licence, “quite a lot of universities have appointed new compliance officers”, he said.
In January, Glyn Williams, head of migration policy at the Home Office, said that the sector would enjoy a period of “policy stability” and that he wanted to strike a more conciliatory tone with higher education institutions.