Student visa 'chaos' claim by Public Accounts Committee
- 4 September 2012
- From the section Education & Family
Attempts to tighten the student visa system have been strongly attacked by a committee of MPs as "poorly planned and ill thought-out", and creating "chaos".
The report from the Public Accounts Committee criticised the points-based visa system introduced in 2009.
It came as London Metropolitan University launched legal action over a ban on recruiting overseas students.
The UK Border Agency issued the ban after finding many overseas students did not have the right to be in the UK.
The government agency said the decision to revoke the university's licence to sponsor non-EU students was the "correct course of action" and it would "strongly contest" any legal action.
It had found that more than a quarter of a sample of students studying at the university did not have permission to stay in the country and there were "systemic failings" in the system.
But the institution said there was no evidence of this and it challenged the evidence gathered by the UKBA in the "strongest possible terms".
"London Met appreciates that as the first UK university to be placed in this position it has a duty to the sector to try and bring an end to the damage arising from UKBA's decision," it said in a statement on Monday evening.
Malcolm Gillies, vice-chancellor of the university, told the BBC much of the UKBA's case is "wrong".
"It is 22 pages of very detailed statistical argument and we are able to prove through working night and day over the last five days with some of the best immigration lawyers in the country, that in so many areas it is highly flawed.
"It has to be audited against what the exact rules were of the UKBA at the time, and they have changed 14 times substantially in the last three years," he added.
Up to 2,600 foreign students are affected and have until 1 December to find an alternative course or arrange to leave the UK.
The university said it was taking action so its overseas students could return to study "as a matter of urgency".
The committee's report was written before London Met became the first UK university to be stripped of its right to recruit overseas students.
The report said that, rather than cutting illegal migration, the points-based system had created a surge of as many as 50,000 more bogus students.
It concluded that overseas students should be considered separately from net migration figures.
The MPs claimed that an unsuccessful introduction of the points-based system was followed by years of "playing catch-up" - with complex regulations and uncertainty about the reliability of migration figures.
The report highlighted a tension between efforts to clamp down on misuse of the student visa system and a recruitment drive to recruit higher numbers of overseas students.
According to the report, there was a flawed introduction for the "Tier 4 points-based system", under which approved educational institutions were allowed to sponsor overseas students.
"It is extraordinary that the UK Border Agency introduced its new points-based system for students before proper controls were in place to replace the old ones," said committee chairwoman Margaret Hodge.
"The result of the agency's poorly planned and ill thought-out course of action was chaos: an immediate high level of abuse of the new system and a surge in the number of student visas.
"In 2009 the number of migrants who abused the student route to work rather than study went up by as much as 40,000 to 50,000.
"Since then, the agency has been playing catch-up, continually adjusting the rules and procedures in order to try and tackle abuse.
"A bad situation has been made worse by the poor customer support being provided by the agency."
The report set out a series of failings.
It said that, when the points-based system was implemented three years ago, it remained too easy for bogus students to cheat the system, such as by using forged documents.
And for those students who had broken visa rules, the report claimed the border agency had not taken enough action to pursue them.
It also argued that the underlying data for debating migration, including overseas students, was "highly inaccurate", and would remain so until an electronic border system was in place.
As such the report said it might be "more informative" to exclude overseas students from net migration figures.
Universities UK backed such a call.
"It is clear that genuine international students, who come and then go, must be taken out of the definition of the net migration equation. Then we can really work with the government on any students who should not be here," said chief executive Nicola Dandridge.
In response, Immigration Minister Damian Green said: "Our hard-hitting new measures are beginning to bite - we have already seen the number of student visas issued drop by 30% in the 12 months to June 2012, compared with the same period in 2011, and recent enforcement action has seen 400 student overstayers leave the London area and return home.
"Tough new rules have seen 500 fewer colleges being able to sponsor international students and last week London Metropolitan University's licence to teach non-EU students was revoked after it failed to address serious systemic failings.
"So the message to students and education providers is clear: Britain will welcome the best and the brightest students who meet our immigration rules but we will not tolerate any abuse."