Standing with his arms folded in the drab administration room of the London School of Business and Finance (LSBF), Pete Nguyen cuts a despondent figure. Just two months ago he was busy studying for a chartered qualification at St Patrick's College – a for-profit business school which works with LSBF. His aim was clear: the 22-year-old international student from Vietman wanted to stand out from the crowd with an extra degree, find a company willing to sponsor his visa and stay on in the country he had made his home since 2009.
Today, half-way through the two year course in management, his plan lies in tatters. On the 19th of February, St Patrick's had its licence to sponsor students from countries outside the EU taken away after an investigation from the Home Office. An appeal was made by the institution but two months later, on the 20th of April the decision was upheld.
Pete's attendance on the course has now stopped, the money he paid up front for two years of classes taken away without full compensation, and from the Home Office – the people he hoped might help him – he got a bleak and bureaucratic letter instructing him, and every other international student at the college, to find a new visa-sponsor within 60 days or get out the country.
In the college's office, a glum looking staff member stares down at his computer screen as Pete asks for guidance.
"It's a compliance issue," the administrator says coldly. "You need to ask them".
Though non-EU students make a clear contribution to the UK economy, the pressure to reduce net migration means they are now increasingly unwelcome. Just last week the Home Secretary Theresa May announced harsh new measures for international students as part of a crackdown on "visa fraud". Non-EU students will be banned from working while they study and forced to leave the country the moment their courses are over.
"Economically it makes more sense to have international students but what's happening at St Patrick's and elsewhere is driven by fear," Pete tells me, just outside the building his classes were held in. "When the economy is not doing very well they like to point figures at foreign people".
Though illegal immigration does take place through the student visa system, most of the UK's 121,000 international students come to the country legitimately to study. It's the colleges that are often at fault when things go wrong and they lose the right to sponsor visas.
But as Stephan Sangare – another St Patrick's student – tells me, it's the international students who feel like they're being punished. "I had to pay £6,000 in advance for the course and I got £1,250 back. It's not the fault of the students. We've paid the fees, we've attended the right amount of classes", he says from his family home in the Ivory Coast, where he has been forced to return.
The precise reason St Patrick's has lost its license remains hard to establish. A report by the Public Accounts Committee published just before the decision found nearly £4 million in public money had been claimed from the Student Loans Company by "ineligible EU students" studying at various alternative higher education providers. But neither the college or the Home Office were willing to confirm the cause of the problem in this case.
Over the last few months, St Patrick's has been stung by a number of different complaints and allegations. In February an investigation by BBC Face The Facts found evidence of overcrowding, poor facilities and students enrolled solely for the purpose of accessing public loans. A further investigation by the Quality Assurance Agency, the higher education regulator, found many of the same issues as well as high withdrawal rates, recruitment through cold-contact and advertising non-existent courses.
Critics argue that many of these problems stem from the institution's status as a for-profit college. Back in 2012 David Willetts, then Minister for Universities and Science, opened up the loan and maintenance grant funding system to private providers. Since then the sector has grown dramatically, often by abusing the funding system. At St Patrick's – which receives more money in student loans than any other private college in England – the number of students enrolled on Higher National Courses rose from 50 to 4,000 in just 12 months.
Management see this as a clear sign of success. In a statement a spokesperson for the college said "St Patrick's College is focused on expanding access to higher education in the UK and has been successful in doing so in the past few years".
But according to Pete, it's failure to properly accommodate this rapid expansion that has failed him. "They take in as many students as they can, make as much money as possible, and when it goes to shit we have to bear the burden and the leave the country," he says. "The college promised to offer us education and the right to live in the UK, then abandoned us when business went bad".
On their letters from the Home Office, the students of St Patrick's have been offered just 60 days to find a new college to sponsor them. A spokesperson for the college told me its students were being "supported" throughout the process with help offered to "find other sponsors".
"St Patrick's College has gone to great lengths to support students affected by the Home Office's decision and ensure they were able to complete their studies and acquire their qualifications," the spokesperson said. "We employ robust procedures to train our staff and strive to provide our students with the best possible service at all times".
But Pete says he has been offered "nothing". After applying for a refund, he claims it took 45 days to receive a response, after which he was left out of pocket by over £2,000. Without the money, and with the 60 days rapidly expiring, his chances of a finding a new college remain uncertain.
"I desperately need that money to pay for new tuition," he says. "If I'm going to enroll on a new course I'm going to need that whole amount of money to pay for it. Thankfully there is a college willing to sponsor my visa but I'm running out of time to stay in the country".
A spokesperson for the college said their refund policy follows "published guidelines". "Those who decided to withdraw from their course were given the option to apply for a refund," the spokesperson said. "Any request for a refund must comply with a number of conditions and, as such, fees paid for modules that have already been completed may not be subject to a refund".
Even with a full refund, finding a new institution can still be difficult for international students. With the Home Office monitoring colleges and universities so closely, many are reluctant to take on students from institutions that have lost their licences.
"Other universities have become aware of St Patrick's," Stephane tells me. "When the license of your university has been withdrawn it's difficult for students to find anywhere else. They don't want students from other bad places in case they lose their own licence".
When Theresa May unveiled her new plans for foreign students last week it was "nothing new" to Pete. From racist abuse on the London underground to scores of failed job applications because of his visa status, any hope he had in the UK as somewhere viable for students like him has long since disappeared. Though he hopes to find a new college to complete his management degree, he says his long-term plans now lie elsewhere.
"I've been here for six years now and I've kind of had enough. If the country doesn't appreciate my presence I'll take it elsewhere".
With 870 "bogus colleges" having lost their sponsorship licences since 2010, and various publicly funded colleges and universities being caught up in the crackdown, it's not hard to imagine that many others feel the same.
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