When worlds collide: why the UKBA sends the sector into a panic

An emetic email leads Simeon Underwood to discuss how universities are struggling to cope with the permanent immigration revolution

June 7, 2012

Credit: Miles Cole

Be afraid, be very afraid. A new terror is stalking the administrative corridors of our universities. On Thursday 10 May at 11.47am, a message popped up in my email in-tray. It was from the UK Border Agency. It was headed RECENT REJECTION OF THE APPLICATION FOR A SPONSOR'S LICENCE (note the vaguely peremptory capitals). It was sent from a no-reply email address. It did not say which application had been rejected and it didn't say why.

I am ashamed to say that this induced panic. Losing your UKBA licence is one of the worst risks facing British universities. In the most extreme scenario, you might have to tell all your Tier 4 students that they have to go home within 60 days. You could lose the right to recruit international staff - and you would have no formal right of appeal.

So we spent three hours frantically searching the files to see what application, if any, we had put in to the UKBA. When we couldn't find anything, we rang a contact at the agency. I like to think that this induced a certain amount of frantic searching at their end. Very soon we received a reply. Very sorry, it had been an IT error - presumably a capricious computer had sent the message out of its own accord. A few hours later, the same apology went out to all the other universities and colleges that had been sent the message.

For universities, the UKBA is scary. Most of the organisations we deal with - the funding councils, the Quality Assurance Agency, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator - are sector-specific. They know us and our ways. To the UKBA, we are merely a few clients among many thousands.

Whereas we have learned to assimilate the QAA or the OIA, the UKBA shows no sign of falling into line. Every time you get a message from it, you open it with a frisson of alarm. I have been around long enough to remember when vice-chancellors had to open the 1981 University Grants Committee letter. I recall early letters about the subject-level quality assessment inspections in the early 1990s. Mail from the UKBA is up there with the best of them.

So what is causing administrators such high anxiety? Well, to start with, in order to operate in this area, managers have to understand at least four overlapping sets of rules.

These rules change constantly: there have been 14 major changes in three years, with more to come.

They aren't consistent, either. So, for example, colleagues and I have spent time lately poring over textual differences between paragraphs 472 to 477 of the sponsor guidance and the Immigration Rules Part 6A Paragraph 245ZV (ga).

They change mid-cycle, too. Last year, our admissions offices had to revisit more than 6,000 offers we had already made, manually, twice, to see if they met new rules the UKBA had introduced on English language and academic progression. We will now do the same for at least some of this year's 6,000-plus offers to check on the new five-year cap rule - once we know which of paragraphs 472 to 477 of the sponsor guidance and the Immigration Rules Part 6A Paragraph 245ZV (ga) takes priority.

You know when an administrative area (a) is becoming complex and (b) matters because the lawyers start to show an interest. Recently a law firm offered to conduct an audit of our preparedness for a UKBA audit at a mere £10,000 (plus VAT).

Our costs have grown. Between staff costs in admissions, staff costs in advice to students who are already here, management time, IT development and fees to the UKBA, the London School of Economics is spending at least a quarter of a million pounds a year to run this area.

And there is no end in sight. The government remains a long way off its stated target of reducing net migration to "tens of thousands", so policy changes will continue. The UKBA will raise its fees further in order to meet what it regards as its true costs (and to help deliver its savings targets). We in the universities will have to "gold plate" our administration in this area - we can't take risks of a kind that might put our sponsorship licence at risk. And now horror stories are starting to emerge from universities whose licences have recently come under threat. Be afraid, be very afraid.

But before readers are overwhelmed with pity for their administrative colleagues, there are two final things to say.

Is the UKBA entirely to blame? It has to reconcile an increasing administrative workload, funding cuts and seemingly perverse government policies every bit as much as we do.

And who are the worst affected? Administrators in this area know that the worst horror stories don't involve us. No, real applicants and real students fall foul of UKBA systems. The queues tailing through Heathrow airport are nothing compared with the tales we now have in our files.

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