Wednesday, June 25, 2014

UK Student Visa Fraud: Next Round

The Immigration Minister, James Brokenshire, made a statement in the parliament yesterday regarding the government's response to the widespread visa fraud uncovered by BBC Panorama earlier this year. (See post) The measures are rather extraordinary in scope, though those who have seen the BBC Panorama programme would agree that the brazenness of the scam was mind-boggling.



If anyone thought that the issue of student visas are now settled, after thousands of private colleges, bogus and legitimate, have been shut down, they have been proved wrong. Several universities, including London Metropolitan University, have been scarred by the experience (see story here). The aim of the government was to close down every college except the Highly Trusted ones (a category of sponsors defined by the new immigration rules) by 2012, but this has obviously failed. The fact that this issue keeps coming back indicate that a serious rethinking, rather than rhetoric, is needed. 

The developments announced by the Minister yesterday include:

- Glyndwr University, a Welsh university, which was doing brisk business in London with a prominent private institution, London School of Business and Finance (LSBF), has been stripped of its Highly Trusted Status. This will mean that the university will no longer be able to sponsor any international students.

- Two other universities, University of Bedfordshire and University of West London (formerly known as Thames Valley University), have been barred from sponsoring new international students. This is one step away from suspending their licenses altogether, and while these universities retain their highly trusted status, the number of Confirmation of Acceptance of Studies (CAS) they can issue has been reduced to zero. Indeed, this also means none of their current international students can extend their visa if needed, though there could be an emergency solution found, if needed.

- London School of Business and Finance (LSBF), along with its Birmingham-based sister company, Finance Business Training (FBT), have also been suspended. LSBF deserves special mention as this maintained a very high profile among the private institutions, with Prince Michael of Kent as its Royal Patron and campuses all over the world. LSBF also maintained a very high profile marketing presence, backed by a huge advertising expense internationally. 

- 55 other private institutions, listed below, were also suspended. Some of these may have been colluding in the visa fraud, but others may be purely collateral damage, got caught out having accepted students with fake certificates.

- Most importantly, the Princeton-based Education Testing Service (ETS) is at the center of this scam. The Minister reported that the National Crime Agency could identify at least 29,000 fraudulent results and 19,000 questionable results of ETS tests, though they haven't been able to look at all the ETS centers yet. The ETS license as a Secure Test Provider has been cancelled and the government has started a criminal investigation against the organisation.

However, despite the sweeping nature of these measures, it may still be cosmetic - and this seems to be the problem in Government's handling of each new crisis. If one has to fix the scandals in the education sector, which is having a damaging effect on all of UK Higher Education, one needs joined up thinking. And, this is still missing in this case.

Many examples could be given, most notably how the belligerence of government action failed to bring universities on its side. The unfortunate fall-outs such as these, where public universities are getting caught out sponsoring fraudulent students, could have been and should have been avoided if the organisations could work together. 

One clear example of regulatory failure is perhaps that it took so long to put the practices of LSBF/ FBT under scanner.  Despite their high advertising spend, they had long-standing issues with quality, which affected every university partner they have worked with. Its initial partners were University of East London, which terminated the partnership in 2011 (See document here). Then the institution moved over to University of Wales, which ended in a huge fiasco in 2012 (See the QAA concerns report). Despite all this, another British university, London Metropolitan University, decided to work with the institution, even allowing them to issue visa sponsorships on their behalf, which, predictably, ended badly, costing the university £2 million (See here). Yet, Glyndwr University quickly took its place, allowing the organisation to recruit students on its behalf, only to end up being scrutinised by UK Border Agency (see story here), which is perhaps one of the reasons for the university's current woes. In the meantime, the Canadian branch of LSBF have had a 'Restraining Order' (See here). However, despite this, till about February this year, British Public universities and the various agencies, including QAA, made no public effort to reign in the practices of the organisation. It is only in February this year, when all the universities associated with LSBF decided to cut off the relationship (see here), there was a sense that some action is being taken.

This is the first time there was any indication from a government agency that LSBF's practices were less than kosher, which many people have long suspected (due to the trail of events as mentioned above) but there was nothing in any public documents, presumably for fear of lawsuits, that said as much. This is a gross regulatory failure to protect students, who would have signed up for LSBF. The government has now suspended the college, because they found more than 200 students with questionable English certificates, an action that will affect not just the erring students but those who enrolled in good faith in the intervening time when the regulators were sitting still.

The other problem in this regard is that while the government has finally taken action on LSBF's practices with regard to international students, they have missed the point that the organisation has moved on. It is not the international students that is their main business any more; rather, perhaps sensing the problem, the organisation has now morphed itself, buying into several other private institutions and effectively trading with different names. The most successful of these sister entities focus on UK and EU students who do not need a visa, but has entitlement for student loans. Since the student loans have come in, some private colleges have used the facility to attract students who has no intent to study is being enrolled in the course, because they can draw their maintenance allowance and they never have to pay back the income-contingent loan because they are never going to work. While the government deals with the visa related issues, they may fail to see that the market, and various operators, have moved on - and a new scandal is brewing around the corner.

Indeed, this case is an example of what may be wrong with the system: There is no joined up strategic thinking and only reactions to day to day crisis. There is no doubt that there is a problem in UK Higher Education, and this is not just about the government's "unreasonable" attempt to limit the student numbers. The problem of visa fraud affects everyone, including most of the universities, which are trying to provide a decent education, and the students who are in the country legitimately but have to suffer from a problem of perception. It is affecting the legitimacy of all British institutions, except a few very well known ones, and generally undermining the trust in and within the education system. The government's approach to the problem of streamlining British Higher Education has been piecemeal, and it has failed to act in a timely manner. Scandals forced some knee-jerk actions, starting with the mass suspension of UK private colleges by the then Labour government in 2009/10, but rarely evolved into a systematic solution. And, this is perhaps due to a political culture of point scoring rather than sustainable action, which will involve dialogue with the universities and a level-headed review of the whole student-visa system. The only worse thing than no regulations is a broken regulatory system, which we have now. If the British Higher Ed has to maintain its credibility, there is an urgent need to have an honest conversion and some sustainable action.

List of the 57 Suspended Colleges (Courtsey: The Pie News)

1. Alpha College
2. Alpha Meridian College
3. APS Computer Solutions TA Pitman Training Centre
4. Birmingham Institute of Education Training and Technology
5. Blake Hall College
6. Bloomsbury International UK
7. Bradford College of Management
8. Bradford Metropolitan College
9. Bristol College of Accountancy
10. Britain College
11. Central College London
12. Central College of Studies
13. Central Cranbrook College
14. Citizen 2000 Education Institute
15. City of London Academy
16. College of Advanced Studies
17. College of East London
18. College of Excellence
19. Cranford College
20. Essex College
21. Eynsford College
22. FBT (Finance Business Training)
23. Forbes Graduate School
24. Hammersmith Management College
25. Helios International College
26. IIM Bedford
27. Interlink College of Technology & Business Studies
28. Katherine & Kings College of London
29. Kinnaird College
30. LIT LON Ltd
31. London Academy of Management and Business
32. London College of Business Management and Computing Studies
33. London College of Finance and Accounting
34. London Corporate College
35. London Educators Ltd
36. London Premier College
37. London Regal College
38. London School of Advanced Studies
39. London School of Marketing t/a LS Business School
40. London School of Technology
41. London St Andrews College
42. LSBF (London School of Business and Finance)
43. Manchester College of Management Sciences
44. Manchester International College (International Learning Centre)
45. Manchester Trinity
46. Midlands Academy of Business and Technology
47. North West College Reading
48. Queensbury College
49. Shakespeare College
50. South London College
51. Stanfords College UK Ltd
52. Studio Cambridge
53. Superior College London
54. UK Business Academy
55. UK Vocational Training College t/a UK CAT
56. West George College
57. West London Business College


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