Page last updated at 19:33 GMT, Monday, 22 June 2009 20:33 UK

'Bogus' college students face removal

By Sharif Sakr and Nigel Morris
BBC News, London

Shot from Cambridge College of Learning's TV adver
A shot from Cambridge College of Learning's television advert

Thousands of foreign students who attended a college in east London could be forced to leave the UK if an immigration tribunal rules that their studies were bogus.

The Cambridge College of Learning was endorsed by the Government, which granted visas for immigrants to study there.

But BBC London revealed in December 2008 that the college had been infiltrated by fraudsters, who were selling diplomas for cash with no actual studying required.

The Home Office later rejected 2,500 visa applications from the college.

But three students are appealing against this decision, as part of a test case in front an immigration tribunal.

'Unscrupulous fraudsters'

Ian Macdonald QC, representing the students, told the judges that the college was "perfectly genuine" but had been "hijacked by a small group of unscrupulous fraudsters".

He said it was essential to separate the "wheat from the chaff".

One of the three students, Mohammed Raja, claimed he studied a genuine post-graduate diploma in IT at the Cambridge College of Learning. He used this diploma certificate to apply for a two-year visa extension.

But Gerard Clarke QC, representing the Home Office, attacked the authenticity of Raja's coursework, saying it had been copied "word for word" from a website.

Mr Raja insisted: "I did study there."

"Was it a post-graduate diploma in how to use Google?"
Gerard Clarke, QC

Mr Clarke asked: "Was it a post-graduate diploma in how to use Google?"

Despite the test case, another student has already appealed separately and won. He convinced judges that he was a genuine student who had not taken part in any scam.

The student, who did not want to be named, told BBC London that clearing his name had been more important to him than staying in the UK: "It is just really embarrassing. [The college] is so notorious. It's just like a stamp on your face…"

The principal and owner of the Cambridge College of Learning, which closed after it was raided by the UK Border Agency in December, was Saif Ullah, a Pakistani national.

Over a four-month period, Mr Ullah allegedly signed off thousands of suspect diplomas - even though his college only had five small classrooms.

Police had issued a warrant for Mr Ullah's arrest but he is believed to have returned to Pakistan. The BBC has been unable to contact Mr Ullah.

'Tick-box system'

The Home Office appoints accreditation bodies to inspect colleges and weed out the bogus ones.

The system has been reformed a number of times in the past three years but education expert Professor Geoffrey Alderman says it is still flawed.

"It is a tick-box system," he said. "That is the fundamental flaw.

"Yes there are some inspections, but they are not very intrusive. It is true that the Border Agency, if they smell a rat, may send their own inspectors and close an institution down but by then a year has passed and a lot of money has been made."

This month, the Home Affairs Select Committee heard that there could "quite easily" be "tens of thousands" of bogus students in the UK already as a result of such loopholes.

But the Home Office refuted this, saying: "All colleges receive thorough checks before they are issued a licence to sponsor foreign students.

"Before an institution can bring over any student we have to be satisfied they are genuine - this includes approval by an accredited body, and assessment of their premises, courses and teaching staff.

"By July this year, every single establishment will have been visited by a UK Border Agency assessor."

The tribunal is expected to reach a conclusion next month.

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A tribunal heard the government-approved college had been "hijacked" by criminals



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