There are fears that London branch campuses run by UK universities could have been “targeted” by criminals running visa scams, as the Home Office investigates what it calls a “concerted attack” on institutions.
Concerns have also been raised within the sector about the government’s decision to name three universities in a statement on visa abuse – Glyndwr University, the University of Bedfordshire and the University of West London – when the last two had merely had their ability to sponsor new overseas students halted “pending further investigation”. In the past, some universities have suffered the tougher sanction of having their visa licences suspended without being named, it is understood.
James Brokenshire, the immigration minister, announced on 24 June that Glyndwr’s highly trusted sponsor status had been suspended. That was part of a wider statement on an investigation into “actions by organised criminals to falsify English language tests for student visa applicants”, following a BBC Panorama exposé about the firm Educational Testing Service.
It is thought that Home Office letters to universities and colleges affected by the announcement refer to a “concerted attack” on institutions by visa fraudsters.
Mr Brokenshire said in his statement that “much of the worst abuse” had occurred at London branch campuses run by universities, adding that the Quality Assurance Agency would hold an inquiry into the campuses “to see whether further action should be taken against their parent universities”.
A Times Higher Education analysis of the branch campuses (see box, below) shows that student numbers at the largest, that run by Glyndwr, have reached 1,705. The campuses are aimed mainly at non-EU students, and some are partnerships with private providers.
Pat Saini, head of immigration at law firm Penningtons, said that there were likely to be questions over visa procedures at London branch campuses and over monitoring by parent universities. “If a university has its base outside London, when it takes over a provider or sets up a branch campus, the big question is: have they adopted that provider’s processes and procedures, or have they put their own processes and procedures in?”
She added that in the Home Office’s eyes, “all the systems” at the London campus “need to mirror” those of the parent university, which remains the sponsor for all students. Asked if visa procedures at branch campuses were being maintained to that standard, Ms Saini said: “Obviously the Home Office and QAA think they may not be, hence there’s an investigation going on. It could be considered that the London campuses have been targeted…The institutions and the genuine students at these institutions, are they victims of this?”
The University of East Anglia announced in January that it would close its London campus in September. But the operation, run as a joint venture with private firm INTO, is now part of the QAA’s inquiry.
Edward Acton, UEA’s vice-chancellor, said: “Since one wants to have a watertight grip on the compliance of students that one sponsors, if it emerges [that] there is some feature of having a London campus that inherently introduces higher risk in this area I’m extremely glad we’ve resolved to focus our full attention on Norwich.”
Asked whether UEA had decided to shut the London campus because it saw visa problems coming, Professor Acton said that was not the case and said it was “much more a case of being extremely pleased and motivated by the quality of what Norwich can offer”.
The Home Office is believed to have focused its investigations on institutions with high numbers of recruits with ETS qualifications. But universities point out that ETS was among the test providers approved by the Home Office until earlier this year.
For pre-degree level study, institutions have to depend on a Home Office approved secure English language test, as this is the only evidence that will support a visa application for study at this level.
For degree-level study, institutions can accept secure English language tests or some other form of test, including in-house testing, to demonstrate that a student reaches the required level of English.
Professor Acton said the government had “mishandled” Mr Brokenshire’s statement. “There should have been very crystal clear affirmation of the overwhelming visa compliance of universities and university-sponsored students, instead of silence on that – and the kind of language that just risks spreading a smear…It could be stupidity, but one fears it’s deliberate.”
London campuses that will come ‘under the scope’ of the QAA’s inquiry
|London campus||Year opened||Number of students (non-EU) in 2013-14|
|Notes: The universities of Liverpool, Loughborough, Northumbria and South Wales have London campuses that are on the QAA list, but they have yet to open fully to students. The University of Cumbria’s London campus is also on the list, but it focuses on teacher training and has no non-EU students.|
|Anglia Ruskin – LCA Business School||2000||Did not provide data in time|
|Bangor Business School – London Centre||2011||95 (93)|
|Coventry University London Campus||2010||867 (678)|
|University of East Anglia – UEA London||2010||321 (256)|
|Glasgow Caledonian University – GCU London||2010||244 (199)|
|Glyndwr University London||2011||1,705 (1,644)|
|University of Sunderland London Campus||2012||1,500 (all non-EU)|
|University of Ulster London Campus||2011||250 (no breakdown)|
|University of Wales Trinity Saint David-London||2012||434 (all non-EU)|