The government’s investigation into alleged abuse of student visas has led the University of Sunderland to suspend recruitment at its London campus, telling students who had planned to start courses in August not to travel to the UK.
Sunderland’s move, which means that it has turned back 98 full fee-paying students and will refund their payments, is further evidence of the impact on universities being wrought by the government’s response to revelations about language testing firm ETS.
The government action – focused against three universities so far as well as those with London campuses – potentially leaves thousands of overseas students who had been planning to attend UK universities next year uncertain over whether they can start their courses.
About 9,000 students from outside the European Union study at the three universities the government has so far named in connection with its crackdown, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency. James Brokenshire, the immigration minister, announced last month that Glyndwr University’s visa sponsor licence had been suspended while the universities of Bedfordshire and West London had been prevented from recruiting new overseas students pending further inquiries.
Mr Brokenshire also said that “much of the worst abuse” had occurred at London branch campuses, adding that the Quality Assurance Agency would hold an inquiry “to see whether further action should be taken against their parent universities”. That led to suggestions that London campuses, possibly with weaker visa compliance than their parent universities, had been targeted by visa fraudsters.
After Mr Brokenshire’s announcement, Sunderland told prospective students for its London campus, many of whom are in India, that “an investigation is ongoing into the alleged abuse of the UK Student Visa System”.
The email, from Carol Mallon, admissions liaison manager at Sunderland’s London campus, adds: “It is within this context that the university has decided to put on hold its recruitment to London Campus until we have assurance of the validity of the English language qualifications presented by new applicants.
“Regrettably I therefore inform you that you are unable to commence study at the University of Sunderland London Campus in August and as such should not plan to travel to the UK.”
The email concludes: “Whilst we appreciate how upsetting this decision will be to you it is unavoidable and we will take steps to refund to you any amounts already paid.”
Bedfordshire, West London and Glyndwr would not comment on how many overseas students they were expecting to enrol for 2014-15.
But Hesa figures show that in 2012-13, Bedfordshire had 4,695 non-EU postgraduates and undergraduates, West London had 1,580 and Glyndwr had 2,580.
Bedfordshire said last week that it had received a full audit from UK Visas and Immigration and expected a report “before the end of the month”. Such a report is likely to confirm whether its overseas recruitment will be reinstated, or whether tougher action from UKVI will follow.