The UK failed to treat more than 2,500 overseas students threatened with deportation at London Metropolitan University like human beings, a leading vice-chancellor claimed today.
Professor Eric Thomas, president of Universities UK - the body which represents vice-chancellors, told his annual conference at Keele University: “Let's all ponder on how we would have reacted if that had happened to our sons and daughter in foreign country.”
He was speaking as Universities Minister David Willetts sought to soothe vice-chancellors' anger over the deportation threat by announcing that - in future - the government would keep closer tabs on the number of foreign students leaving the country after their courses.
In addition, student numbers would be disaggregated from national figures on immigration so ministers would get a clearer indication of their impact on the overall figures.
Overseas students at LMU have been given three months to find alternative courses following a decision by the UK Border Agency to revoke its licence to teach foreign students after alleging one in four from overseas at the university did not have visas.
However, Professor Thomas, who is vice-chancellor of Bristol University, argued: “Around 3,000 students, of whom the vast majority were bona fide students, found themselves in a foreign country in a foreign country far from home without a course.
”I have had no rational explanation of how that fulfilled our duties to them as human beings never mind as students.“
He added: Everyone involved in this needs to remind themselves that families have paid for these courses and that, for these students, this is one of their major lifetime chances.
”Why were their needs not given absolute primacy in all these considerations?“
Professor Thomas' comments come the day before LMU seeks the go ahead in the courts for a judicial review of the decision to revoke its licence to teach overseas students.
In his address to the conference, Mr Willetts, acknowledged the importance of overseas students to the economy - estimating they brought in more than £8 billion a year in terms of fee income and spending.
He announced that he and Professor Thomas would be writing a joint article for publication in overseas newspapers - stressing there were no restrictions on overseas student numbers in the UK.
He added that the Government had set up a £2million fund to cover any costs incurred by overseas students having to transfer to other universities in the UK.
”I do hope no other institution will face a similar situation in the future,“ he went on, "but it makes sense for the sector to plan now as to how it would manage that risk if it does arise."
Both vice-chancellors and university lecturers said the Government's move in disaggregating the figures did not go far enough. They want student numbers recorded separately.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: ”It appears that the Government has finally recognised the damage its student visa policy coupled with threatening to depart thousands of fee-paying overseas students is doing to our international reputation.
“However, today's fudge will not solve the problem. Simply providing a mechanism to count overseas students does not remove them from net migration figures.”