'One strike and you're out' sends a damaging message to the world
The UKBA's revocation of London Met's licence to accept non-EU students is detrimental to our global reputation, says Eric Thomas
It's transformed people's perceptions of the country," said the double-amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius of the support he and his fellow Paralympic athletes had enjoyed in London, a few moments after smashing the T44 200m world record last Saturday.
Just a few miles west, on the Holloway Road, perceptions were also being changed, and not for the better.
In the middle of the Olympic and Paralympic period, with the UK on show as a diverse and welcoming country, the decision by the UK Border Agency to revoke London Metropolitan University's licence to recruit and teach international students has sent an extremely damaging message to the world.
The decision is particularly frustrating since I know how hard universities have worked to adapt to the frequently changing requirements of the immigration system.
Without being in a position to comment on the details of this case, it does appear that we are still some way off a genuinely collaborative relationship with the UKBA, in which the priority is identifying and resolving problems, and dealing with concerns in a proportionate way. There was no need to make so many legitimate students the innocent victims in the process.
At Universities UK, our immediate concern is assisting those students. Other institutions have been swift to offer support and help, and, working with the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, our ambition is to place as many students as possible on alternative courses.
We have been greatly helped by the government's decision not to issue curtailment letters (instructing students to find another sponsor or leave the country within 60 days) for at least a month. But alongside this, we need fundamental changes to the systems involved. Many universities have reported difficulties communicating with the UKBA following its audits, which make it difficult to address any issues raised.
The annual cycle leaves many universities dealing with the same uncertainty that London Met experienced during its busiest recruitment period. Above all, it cannot be right, with an action as significant as this, that the process appears to boil down to "one strike and you're out". That is particularly the case when "compliance" is not the simple black-and-white matter that many commentators seem to suggest.
For instance, what is attendance monitoring? Is it a register, a swipe-card system or electronic thumbprinting? Or is it none of the above but simply being able to demonstrate that you have processes in place to identify students who stop participating in their studies?
Inevitably, the subtleties of this complex system were lost on many commentators who elided the UKBA's assertion that London Met had not provided proper evidence that students had, for instance, met language requirements or attended regularly, with the suggestion that the students involved were therefore bogus.
The alleged administrative failure - serious though it would be - does not necessarily mean those students weren't legitimate.
Universities benefit enormously from the right to recruit international students. In my experience, institutions take the responsibilities that come with that right very seriously indeed. For UUK, helping our members comply with the UKBA's requirements is a priority. That is why we have established a series of workshops, which will be held on a rolling basis from this autumn, in partnership with the UKBA.
But we would like to see that partnership develop. It must, because although universities benefit from recruiting international students, the principal benefits are to the country as a whole. The economic arguments have been well rehearsed. In the current climate, we would expect any government to back this major growth industry. But the broader benefits cannot be underestimated. For instance: the talented postgraduates who contribute to our research base; the undergraduates who sustain subject areas that might not be viable without them; and the alumni who will be our future business and diplomatic partners. Neither should we underestimate the importance of ensuring that UK-domiciled students are educated alongside peers from a wide variety of countries and backgrounds.
I believe that there are many powerful voices in government who understand this - and understand that building on our strength in international higher education is more important than winning headlines for being "tough on immigration", especially given that international students are not the immigrants who worry voters.
UUK will therefore continue to work with them and many others over the next few months as we take forward our arguments that genuine university students should be taken out of the government's net migration targets.
That should not be read as a suggestion that the government tolerate abuse of the system. Rather, we need, as a matter of urgency, to end the adversarial quality of policy-making in this area. We need to improve the process, restore the confidence of the public here and overseas, and ensure that what has just happened to London Met can never happen again.
Eric Thomas is president of Universities UK.