The Government is to reintroduce student interviews to “check their actual ability” to benefit from a UK course, the Immigration Minister has said.
Damian Green told MPs the measure – strangely reminiscent of the pre-points based system methods deployed by those old fashioned Entry Clearance Officers – was being brought in “as of today” following a pilot carried out at the start of the year which found 17% of students accepted on a course “actually should be refused” as they could not speak “basic conversational English”.
His comments, reported by the Press Association this week, came in response to Tory Julian Brazier, who argued that while overseas students were “vital for our universities”, it had become an “increasingly abused immigration route”.
Mr Brazier said: “Would he agree that the blanket removal of students from the statistics would drive a coach and horses through the excellent measures he’s introduced.”
Mr Green replied: “I’m happy to report to him and the House that as of today we are introducing more widespread interviewing of students to check their actual ability to benefit from a course here.
“We ran a pilot of this between December and February and we discovered that 17% of those who had been accepted on a course in this country actually should be refused because they couldn’t even speak basic conversational English, so there is always more abuse to drive out and we will continue doing so.”
Labour’s Hugh Bayley said the UK had some of the best universities in the world and overseas students contributed £8 billion to the national economy and to the country’s balance of trade.
He said: “There’s been lots of speculation over the weekend that the Government is about to change the migration figures so as to exclude overseas students. Will the minister make a statement about the Government’s intentions and will he think seriously about what can be done with the visa regime and the language requirements to encourage more genuine students to study in British universities.”
Mr Green replied: “There are no plans at all to change the definition of immigration. A student who comes here for three years or more is as much of an immigrant as somebody who comes on a work visa for two years or more. There’s an international definition of immigration which covers everyone who moves to another country for more than a year, so students who come for more than a year are included in that definition.”
He said 206,176 Tier 4 student visas were issued in the year to March 2012, covering all students including those attending university.
However, Prime Minister David Cameron is understood to be concerned that visa restrictions are stopping wealthy foreigners from studying in British universities.
The removal students from the equation would help Mr Cameron to hit a target of cutting the numbers of people coming to live in the UK to tens of thousands of people from outside the European Union.
Mr Cameron is now said to be increasingly sympathetic, with claims from the Home Office that the cap on students are costing the economy £2.6billion.
Tory MP Nadhim Zahawi and Labour MP Paul Blomfield said there was a “growing perception abroad that in terms of higher education, Britain is closed for business.”
They added: “Recent changes to the student visa system have unfortunately broadcast the message that foreign students are unwelcome. We’ve already seen a dramatic fall in students coming from traditional markets such as India.”
The MPs said that the Government as right to crack down on bogus students using fake course to settle in the UK. But the crackdown meant that “genuine students are getting caught in the net. Our borders policy should not be in competition with our growth policy.”
They pointed out that Australia has been through a similar experience – first tightening the rules on visas for foreign students, and then relaxing them.
Mr Zahawi and Mr Blomfield conclude: “The Government will not act as long as it fears the charge of ‘fiddling the figures’. Above all it would send out a positive message to prospective students throughout the world – you are welcome in the UK.”
In May universities warned that the crackdown risked deterring legitimate foreign students and robbing the country of billions of pounds worth of investment.
The heads of universities across Britain suggested that the tough rules around student visas may drive bright applicants towards institutions in other countries.
In a letter, signed by 68 chancellors, governors and university presidents, to Mr Cameron, they called on the Government to remove students from net migration figures to help drive the economy and boost university income.
It came after fears that students are being unfairly targeted as part of a Coalition drive to cut overall levels of immigration.
Prior to the introduction of the disastrous Tier 4 points based system for students, Entry Clearance Officers (ECO’s) would process old style student visa applications and interview a high proportion of applicants.
Whilst the system had it’s faults, like the inconsistency and over exuberance of some ECO’s, it did at least rely on human beings and common sense, rather than a purely points based decision making process.
For instance, a student had to prove the source of funds and would be refused if it was clear that money had suddenly appeared in an account or was borred.
But when Tier 4 was rushed through in 2009, before proper IT systems were in place, students could get a visa even if funds, whether from a finance company or a relative, were in their account for just one day (later extended to a month).
ECO’s complained of being stripped of any decision making powers by ‘people in London who don’t have a clue what’s going on out here’ and warned that it would lead to huge problems.
Dozens of visa posts were closed as clever people in London thought we could save money by having a ‘hub and spoke’ entry clearance operation. To you and me that means a when someone in Pakistan applies for entry clearance as a student, their visa is processed and issued in Dubai.
Three years later the Independent Chief Inspector for borders and immigration, John Vine, reported that the UKBA has no idea whether or not 150,000 visa overstayers have left the country.
If the government wants to prevent so called bogus students from entering the UK, all they have to do is scrap the Tier 4 system brought in by the previous government and start using people instead computers to issue visas.
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