The UK has failed in its duty to overseas students affected by the decision to revoke London Metropolitan University's sponsor licence, a leading vice-chancellor has said.
Professor Eric Thomas, president of Universities UK (UUK), asked how the UK would have reacted if their own sons and daughters faced a similar situation in another country.
His comments came as Universities Minister David Willetts announced a £2 million fund to support London Met's international students who must now transfer to another university.
The UK Border Agency announced at the end of August that it is revoking London Met's highly trusted status for sponsoring international students after it found more than a quarter of a sample of its students did not have permission to stay in the country.
London Met has since announced that it intends to take legal action against the decision so that its students can return to study "as a matter of urgency." Up to 2,600 foreign students are understood to have been affected by UKBA's decision.
Immigration minister Damian Green has suggested London Metropolitan university was stripped of its powers to authorise visas because a "significant proportion" of students did not have a good standard of English and do not turn up to lectures.
Addressing the UUK conference at Keele University this morning, Prof Thomas, who is also vice-chancellor of Bristol University, said: "Around 3,000 students, of whom the overwhelming majority were bona fide students, found themselves 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.
"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.
"Let's all ponder on how we would have reacted if that had happened to our sons and daughters in a foreign country.
"Why were their needs not given absolute primacy in all these considerations?
"I would argue that we all have been found wanting in our duties to these students."
In his speech to the conference, Mr Willetts said that it is important not to "lose sight of the individual students who are most affected by the situation".
These students could incur costs for moving accommodation and applying for new visas, he said.
"I can announce today that we are setting up a £2 million fund to help legitimate overseas students at London Met who face extra costs through no fault of their own as a result of transferring to another institution. This will provide certainty to London Met students at what is a stressful and unsettling time."
Mr Willetts told the conference that the average overseas student pays fees of around £10,000 per year, and spends almost as much while they are studying here.
This means that 400,000 students bring in almost £8 billion a year, he said.
Mr Willetts added: "We must not allow the London Met issues to jeopardise this success story."
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: "A £2 million fund for the 2,500 plus students facing deportation as a result of the Government stripping LMU of its licence to teach non-EU students is nowhere enough to meet their costs.
"While it may be a tacit admission from Government that these students need help, the simple and cheapest option is to grant them an amnesty so they can finish their studies."
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