The Financial Times reports that foreign students seeking to enter the UK from countries such as Pakistan, India, China and Nigeria would be singled out for extra scrutiny by border officials under new immigration policies outlined by the opposition Tory or Conservative party last week.
Tory proposals include “cash deposits” to ensure students leave the UK at the end of their studies, and “stricter rules” to ensure students have sufficient funds in their bank accounts to pay for courses.
Chris Grayling, shadow home secretary, said an incoming Conservative government would also ask many overseas students to pay cash deposits worth “thousands of pounds”, to be returned only when they left the country.
Mr Grayling, who described the present student regime as a “huge loophole in our border controls”, has decided not to pursue stricter measures such as closing the door to courses below degree level or demanding higher standards of English among applicants.
Universities, further education colleges and English language schools have been lobbying politicians not to go too far in blocking overseas students because it would threaten a vital part of their fee-raising capacity just as they face deep budget cuts.
The government estimates that international students bring £8.5bn to the UK economy each year.
Catherine Marston of Universities UK, a representative body, said:
“International students do not come automatically to the UK.
“Our universities work hard to attract them so it’s vital we send out the message that we welcome them.”
The problems with student visas have risen to the top of the government’s agenda after a Nigerian man allegedly attempted to blow up a passenger jet headed for Detroit on Christmas day. The 23-year-old suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, studied mechanical engineering at University College London between 2005 and 2008.
Border officials have stressed that Mr Abdulmutallab was a bona fide applicant from a prominent Nigerian family. A subsequent attempt to return to the UK was rejected after he applied for a course at a bogus college.
Nevertheless, opposition politicians argue that large-scale abuse of the student visa system is a risk to national security.
Home Office ministers are currently carrying out a review of study visas, expected soon, following an intervention by Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister.
Around 240,000 student visas were granted last year, up from 70,000 10 years ago.
Much of this can be attributed to a drive by Mr Brown and former Prime Minister Tony Blair, to establish Britain as a global leader in higher education.
However, Phil Woolas, the Border and Immigration Minister, admits that the student visa has become the immigration system’s “Achilles’ heel”, regularly abused as people from south Asia, west Africa and China look to get round the introduction of stricter work permit controls. Tens of thousands of people have also arrived to study at bogus colleges set up to circumvent immigration rules.
Mr Grayling said he would tighten the system so that only universities and colleges registered with Companies House would be able to “fast-track” applicants through the system. Their candidates would also not pay the cash deposits.
Other colleges would face greater oversight by border agency officials. Institutions using “college” in their name would only be allowed to sponsor students if registered at Companies House. The Tories would also introduce stricter rules to make sure people had enough money in their bank accounts to pay for a full course of study, another area he feels is widely abused.
The countries where most abuses originate would be subject to more vigorous inspections.
The Home Office has been regularly embarrassed on the issue. For example, it was disclosed recently that in a nine-month period only 29 students from Pakistan were interviewed out of 66,000 applicants.
Mr Woolas said yesterday that the prime minister will “soon receive our review and we have agreed that changes will be made”.
He added: “Any student applying under the points-based system provides their fingerprints and is checked against immigration and security watchlists before they reach the UK.”
Immigration Matters Comment
The government has already introduced tighter rules under Tier 4 of the Points Based System and are currently reviewing student visa procedures.
Under the new points system thousands of colleges have been forced to close because they failed to meet the higher standards or comply with the strict new rules.
With a general election due this year, opposition parties are clearly jumping on the ‘immigration bandwagon’, the emphasis of which has moved from asylum seekers to students following a handful of high profile cases.
Mr Grayling did not specify how much a student would have to provide as a cash deposit, but if it is too high it would clearly deter students from choosing to study in the UK.
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