More than 2,500 foreign students are in a desperate bid to avoid deportation tonight as their plight brought warnings that the UK's reputation as a world-class centre for higher education would suffer untold damage.
The students, who have been given 60 days to find alternative courses, were all enrolled at London Metropolitan University - which was dramatically stripped of its right to teach all non European Union foreign students late last night.
UK Border Agency staff claimed one in four of its 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” with its vice-chancellor Malcolm Gillies adding: “We believe it is out of proportion even in terms of the evidence presented to us.”
He added the university would be “horrified” if it was found to have been harbouring illegal immigrants amongst its students“.
Today, as the threat to existing students at the university became clearer, student leaders, opposition MNPs and fellow vice-chancellors united in condemnation of the UKBA's action.
Professor Eric Thomas, chairman of Universities UK - which represents all UK vice-chancellors, said:”The UK Border Agency's decision to revoke London Metropolitan University's licence (to teach overseas students) will cause anxiety and distress to those many legitimate international students studying at London Met and their families.“
Professor Thomas, who is vice-chancellor of Bristol University, added: ”We believe that there were alternative ways of addressing UKBA's concerns and that revocation of a university's licence should only be the option of last resort.“
He said there should be urgent talks to ensure concerns were dealt with in a more ”constructive“ way in future.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, added: ”No matter how this is dressed up. the damaging message that the UK deports foreign students at UK universities will reach ball corners of the globe.
“The last thing we can afford to do is send the message that international students are no longer welcome here.”
Liam Burns, president of the National Union of students, said it had expressed “anger at the way in which decisions had been made” to Home Secretary Theresa May and Immigration Minister Damian Green.
He added that it would have a “potentially catastrophic” impact of the £12.5 billion a year overseas students brought into the British economy.
Chris Bryant, Labour's shadow spokesman on immigration, said the decision would bring “lasting damage to the international reputation of the UK university system which brings billions into the UK economy every year.”
Martin Friedman, of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, added: “The Government's obsession with students abusing immigration regulations is sending a message to foreign students that they aren't welcome here and risks UK universities missing out on the top overseas students with all the damage that could do to the economy.”
Meanwhile, a leading lawyer, Edward Wanambwa, head of immigration at Russell-Cooke, warned the university could be sued for “millions of pounds” as overseas students sought to recoup the fees they had already parted with for courses.
He added: “Unless the university can very quickly overturn the decision in the High Court, itfaces the prospect of being sued for tens of millions of pounds - not to mention having to repay some or all of the fees paid by international students.
”It seems quite likely given the approach now being taken that similar decisions will be threatened or taken against other educational institutions in the near future.
Donna Marie Winstanley, from Hong Kong, who is in the third year of an international relations course at the university, said: “I'm just sat here in shock.
”I've already paid £16,000 in fees and was preparing to pay £8,000 for this year's fees. I don't want too leave.“
A task force has now been set up - backed by Universities UK, University Minister David Willetts' department and the Higher Education Funding Council for England to try and find alternative courses for the 2,600 foreign students already enrolled at the university.
In a statement HEFCE described the situation as ”unprecedented“, adding: ”No other university has had its licence to sponsor international students revoked and UKBA's decision doesn't in any way reflect concern about licencing arrangements at other universities in the UK.“
However, Keith Vaz, chairman of the Commons select committee on home affairs, demanded a statement from the UKBA on whether action would be taken against any other universities. Its chief executive has been summoned to appear before his committee next month and will be grilled on the subject.
Mr Green said London Met had shown itself to be ”very, very deficient as a sponsor (of international students“, adding: ”I'm not chucking anybody out. I am just enforcing the rules.“
London Metropolitan University is no stranger to controversy - having been forced to pay back £36 million to the Government just over two years ago after it emerged it was still claiming money for students who were no longer on their courses.
Professor Gillies was appointed top head the university and steer it out of that crisis after the governing body at the time resigned following a critical report.
London Metropolitan University had its licence to teaching overseas students temporarily suspended earlier this summer - and discussions have been continuing since then. However, they culminated in the UK Border Agency warning that the university ”posed a threat to immigration control“.
Professor Gilles warned that the episode had left ”a growing £10million black hole“ in its finances and warned that the UK Border Agency's actions could pose a threat to the viability of courses at it and other UK universities.