There are many things wrong with the new 'points-based' immigration system, but one of its most pernicious effects is the transfer of responsibility for immigration control of overseas students and staff to educational institutions. They now require a sponsorship licence to enrol overseas students - and obtaining and keeping one requires compliance with what are called 'duties of surveillance'.
Institutions are required to notify the UK Border Agency (UKBA) if a student fails to enrol within the enrolment period, if they discontinue their studies, if they miss ten 'contacts' (lectures or tutorials) without permission, if the institution stops sponsoring them, if there is a significant change in the student's circumstances, or if the student is suspected of breaching the conditions of their leave (for example, by working more than the permitted 20 hours per week).
An electronic 'sponsorship management system', compulsory from February, will ensure that all relevant sponsorship information is stored online for UKBA to access. The system includes online forms in which sponsors have to report on their students. Failure to comply will jeopardise the institution's sponsorship licence.
The University and College Union
(UCU) has reported that members at a number of institutions have been told they must put attendance registers online, to be sent on to UKBA.
According to UKBA, the new system was introduced to crack down on 'bogus students' who enter on a student visa and instead go into full-time employment. Individual applicants are required to attend to have a biometric (fingerprints) taken before being granted a visa, and must carry identity cards when in the country.
UKBA claims that the points-based system helps keep alleged terrorists such as Umar Abdulmutallab out of the country. But the alleged Detroit bomber gave his tutors at UCL no cause for concern during his
three-year course there. He attended all his lectures and would not have been reported under such a system, while his subsequent application to attend a bogus college would have been refused under any system. Certainly, there is no evidence that a 47-page application form - including eight questions about applicants' involvement in terrorist activity - keeps terrorists away.
Taking evidence of acceptance by an educational institution as proof of a student's ability to follow the course, which the new system does, is an improvement on the old system where visa officers assessed students' ability - a feature open to abuse by over-zealous or racist officers.
However, a recent study by the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA), found applicants refused visas for trivial or erroneous reasons (one was refused for listing her nationality as 'Nigeria' instead of 'Nigerian') and having to reapply - meaning another fee of up to £550. One student commented, 'It was really horrible and painful experience because I was denied a visa due to the inadequacies of the British [officials]. Due to this, my parents vowed not to allow my siblings come to England for studies.'
Immigration minister Phil Woolas confirmed that between July and September 2009 around 20,000 overseas students were refused visas that were subsequently granted, often too late for the beginning of term. The obstructive behaviour of immigration officials means that tens of thousands of overseas students are being put off coming to the UK.
The government is currently doing a further review, this time to consider whether to give student visas only to students on degree and postgraduate courses. What would become of the hundreds of English language colleges, colleges of accountancy and business studies and so on if this proposal was carried through?
As well as the shortfall in student numbers enrolling in UK educational institutions against those expected to come in 2009-10, 96 per cent of universities and colleges reported to UKCISA that the recruitment and admission of international students had required additional financial resources. 85 per cent had needed additional staff. The combination of fewer numbers and heavier administrative burdens are likely to have serious repercussions for universities and colleges particularly reliant on overseas students.
The government is sacrificing the futures of thousands of would-be students and educational institutions - and the relationship between students and their educators, who should not be required to act as an unpaid arm of the immigration police.
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