Britain's reputation as a world-class centre for higher education faces irreparable damage, the Government was warned last night, as more than 2,500 foreign students fought desperately to avoid deportation after their visas were suddenly cancelled.
The students, who have been given 60 days to find alternative courses or be forcibly removed from the UK, were all enrolled at London Metropolitan University, which was dramatically stripped of its right to teach all non-European Union foreign students after the Border Agency said it was failing to comply with visa rules.
Stranded students said they were being treated unfairly by the Government after being given permission to come to the UK to study and paying many tens of thousands of pounds in fees and costs for the chance to do so. London Met may now face mass legal action from aggrieved students, lawyers warned.
Concerns were also raised that the Government's determination to crack down on immigration could impact upon the finances of other universities reliant on the higher fees paid by foreign students to balance their books.
The vice-chancellor of London Met, Malcolm Gillies, warned that the future of the university, which has 30,000 students, is at stake because the punishment for its immigration failures could blow a £30m hole in its budget.
Foreign students bring an estimated £12.5bn into the UK economy every year. "No matter how this is dressed up, the damaging message that the UK deports foreign students at UK universities will reach all corners of the globe," said Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union. "The last thing we can afford to do is send the message that international students are no longer welcome here."
UK Border Agency staff claimed that one in four of London Met's overseas students (26 out of a sample of 101) did not have valid visas, 142 out of 250 had "attendance problems" and 20 out of 50 interviewed had limited English.
The university, which denied the claims, said it was "disappointed" with the "unnecessary action".
Professor Gillies added: "We believe it is out of proportion even in terms of the evidence that has been presented to us."
Institutions that want to welcome students from outside the EU must first gain a licence from the UK Borders Agency, which must verify them as "Highly Trusted Sponsors".
In 2011, the Home Secretary made the requirements more stringent and introduced a limit on the number of students each institution could sponsor. Students can apply to these institutions to study English courses above a minimum standard as well as courses of degree standard and above on a "Tier Four" visa.
The rules state that they can come to the UK for up to three years to study and can stay up to four months afterwards. Anyone who wants to stay longer must apply for a separate visa.
UKBA guidance says a student is "allowed to spend no more than three years in the UK studying below UK Bachelors degree level in his/her lifetime".
Chris Bryant, Labour's immigration spokesman, said the decision would "damage the international reputation of the UK university system, which brings billions into the economy every year".
PHUNTSOK TSERING, 26, from India, is studying architecture (pictured)
"I have invested six years in this country. I did my undergraduate degree here and have come back as a postgraduate. We were given a list of other schools that would take us: Westminster is the only good one and they're now full.
"My family has spent £60,000 on my studies. I am stressed out about it, and have not told them yet – they will come to know through the news. There are students who bend the rules but for us genuine students it is totally unfair. I have a year left to study and now I will just have to make do. [If not], they are not going to refund me for the time I have spent here. We blame the UK Border Agency because they could have told us six weeks ago.
BABATUNDE HAMZAT, 23, from Lagos in Nigeria, is studying business
"I have to look for another school. I am worried because it is difficult to find somewhere good to go if we are potentially illegal residents here. I still have three years to go until my course ends and I have only two months to find something. I have paid £6,200 already, I have to pay another £10,000 this month to guarantee a place: I don't even know where that will be yet."