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Foreign students go to high court in a bid to complete their UK courses

A group of foreing students who paid £8,500 each to study in London say they are victims of failed deal between Glyndwr University and a private college. According to The Guardian, "a large group of overseas students are appealing for the right to remain in these unglamorous surroundings after the Welsh university withdrew its sponsorship of their UK study visas."

From left, Ritu Kamrunnaher, Faizan Khan, Afaf Saeed and Sharour Jahan Sohel. Glyndwr sent out letters to the students in January this year saying they were being withdrawn from their accountancy course. Photograph: Teri Pengilley for The Guardian From left, Ritu Kamrunnaher, Faizan Khan, Afaf Saeed and Sharour Jahan Sohel. Glyndwr sent out letters to the students in January this year saying they were being withdrawn from their accountancy course. Photograph: Teri Pengilley for The Guardian
08-07-2014 by The Guardian

Glyndwr University's London Campus is promoted on its website with a golden-hued picture of Tower Bridge and City Hall. The caption under it says: "Experience London."  The reality however is somewhat different.

If you take a left out of Elephant and Castle tube station and then negotiate a complicated traffic intersection via a warren of underpasses, picking your way through a bustling if slightly chaotic street market, you may just find it. The London "campus" of Glyndwr University is, in fact, above a shopping centre, on the eighth floor of a grim 1960s office block.

Strangely enough, a large group of overseas students want to remain in these unglamorous surroundings after the Welsh university withdrew its sponsorship of their UK study visas. Some of these students intend to take their case to the high court this summer.

They seem to have been caught in the middle of a fallout from a failed deal between the university and the private college, the London School of Business and Finance (LSBF). Both the university and the private college have had their right to sponsor overseas students suspended by the Home Office. However, current students are not affected. LSBF was recently also at the centre of a Guardian investigation into its teaching standards.

Under the deal between Glyndwr and LSBF, the students were initially recruited and taught by LSBF in central London, but their UK visas were sponsored by Glyndwr. However, this year the students were told that they would be moving to Elephant and Castle. A few days later, more than 100 were told they would have to go home.

Kamrunnaher Ritu, from Bangladesh says: "I studied for an MBA back home, in a third-world country." "And now I'm feeling really proud that in my country education is much better than this. As international students here we are victims. They can do anything they want with us."

Back in the spring of 2013, LSBF advertised an accountancy qualification – a two-year full-time course certified by the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants, Cima. Applicants for this qualification who were successful, were given official letters to be passed to the Home Office with their visa applications.  These letters clearly stated that the students were studying at Glyndwr's Elephant and Castle base.

"Most of the group who enrolled in the spring of 2013 were happy with the quality of the course at LSBF. There were some minor issues because the electronic machines which recorded their attendance were not always working, but for the most part they felt their studies were progressing well."

However, this January, after the Christmas break, a large number of the students received letters from the university. Exactly how many students received letters is not clear.  The students' solicitor says he has been contacted by more than 100. According to the solicitor, these students were being withdrawn from the programme because their attendance was below 80% or they had not enrolled for a sufficient number of courses.

The students were shocked by this news and many of them disputed the university's claim that they had not fulfilled the requirements of the course.

Ritu was told that the reason she was being expelled was because of her attendance. But on some days, she says, and when she was in fact present, the college's electronic swipe machines were not working properly. She also adds that she did miss some days due to a bad back but she provided medical evidence for this.

The problem is that Ritu and her fellow students had already paid their full £8,500 fee for the two-year course before being withdrawn from it. Ritu says: "We are not a money tree." "They can't just shake us to make money come out. We've spent a lot on this and we just think the way we've been treated is totally unfair."

What is not entirely clear, is the reason the university decided to move the students from LSBF to its own premises at Elephant and Castle. According to the university, it had Home Office approval for its arrangements.  However, it does seem there had been some official concerns.  One student, also from Bangladesh, Sharour Jahan Sohel, was refused a visa by the Home Office on the grounds that he was not based at the address of his sponsor, Glyndwr.  He says: "I don't know what's going on between LSBF and Glyndwr and I don't need to know." he say "I just want to finish my studies and go home. That's my plan."

Sohel has a degree from the University of Gloucestershire.  He started an MBA course but then decided to study for a Cima qualification instead. He was exempted from parts of the course because of his previous study. However the university has now told him that it is not convinced of his ability to complete its course and has therefore withdrawn his sponsorship. Like Ritu, he is also launching a high court action to challenge the decision of the university.

These students will first of all, have to convince a judge that their attendance has been satisfactory.  Furthermore, they will have to convince the judge that they intend to complete the course.

But another student had not even started her course before her right to study was withdrawn.  She has begun a separate legal action.

Afaf Saeed, who is a qualified doctor from Pakistan, wanted to take an accountancy qualification so that she could help manage the private hospital owned by her family. Many of her relatives, including her father, who is an eye specialist, are doctors. Afaf applied last spring but the college agreed to defer her entry until the autumn so that she could complete her first year as a junior doctor in Pakistan. "When I arrived in November I was told it was holiday time, so I should come in January," she says. "Then in the meantime I had a letter from Glyndwr saying they were withdrawing me as I didn't have enough attendance and I hadn't taken enough courses."

"The university has now offered to reinstate Saeed, but she has already started taking the course part-time at a different college and wants Glyndwr to refund her £8,500 course fees plus legal costs of around £2,000."

"Fifty-six of her fellow students have already been to the high court. They applied in February for leave to go to a judicial review, and although not all were successful, a group of around 20 now plan to do so. The university has reviewed their cases in recent months but many have again been told to leave."

Mr Justice Blake, the judge in the case, noted that in the university's handbook it is stated that staff would contact students if there were any concerns over their attendance or performance. Mr Blake believes that even if the students had fallen below required standards, the university still had a duty of care towards them. He said: "It is not enough, in my judgment, for a university simply to direct the student to the small print in the contract, wash its hands and walk away." 

It seems that both Glyndwr University and LSBF have had difficult times lately. Last month their right to sponsor new overseas students had been suspended by the Home Office after an investiagion. Two other universities and 56 other colleges also had the same fate. "The Home Office's investigation centred on an alleged fraud at a separate English language testing organisation, but most of the Cima students were not required to take the test as they had already studied on courses taught in English," according to The Guardian.

Syed Ahmed, the students' solicitor, says he thinks that although Glyndwr and LSBF were not involved in this investigation, questions from the Home Office may have led indirectly to the withdrawal of thei students' visas.  He addes: "When the Home Office became aware of the arrangement between Glyndwr University and LSBF, that was the starting point."  "As a result I think Glyndwr tried to streamline things.

"They say they are just following procedures to ensure fairness, but they are washing their hands of these students. They are saying the students don't have the ability and intention to study but it was the university's duty to ensure that before they issued acceptance letters to them."

In a statement, Glyndwr University said that it was reasonable for it to monitor students' attendance and performance as well as to withdraw sponsorship when and if necessary. "The university is mindful of its duty under public law to act fairly and has therefore investigated each student's circumstances and considered in full all information provided by each student at each relevant stage of its review." 

LSBF admitted that there might have been some occasional errors in its electronic monitoring of students' attendance.  However, systems were in place now to ensure they were rectified.

Some students however are still being allowed to attend classes.  They have also been sitting exams. Many of them say that it has been hard to focus with the threat of deportation hanging over them. They believe that no one is listening to them and justifiably feel frustrated.

Ritu says: "They are saying they're giving us a chance and looking at our cases." "But it feels as if the decision was already made, and there's nothing we can do."