UK Politics

Theresa May says UK plans more visa interviews for students

More people applying for visas to study in the UK are to undergo face-to-face interviews, rather than just paper checks, the home secretary has said.

Theresa May said that from next April border staff would question more than 100,000 people to "root out abuse" of the system, while maintaining the UK as a destination for study.

She pledged to help end the use of visas as a "backdoor route" to work.

Mrs May said the government was on track to meet its migration target.

The coalition wants to cut the level of net migration - the balance between the number of people who come to live in the UK for the long-term and the number who are leaving - to below 100,000 by 2015.

Figures released last week show it fell from 242,000 to 183,000 in the year to March.

'High-risk'

The government says it has tightened up the rules on students from outside the European Economic Area applying for visas to take up courses in the UK.

It argues this is essential to prevent "overstayers", who use studying as an excuse to remain and work in the country, but some institutions have complained that the change makes it harder to attract bright applicants, who opt to go elsewhere.

Last year, the UK Border Agency began a pilot scheme in which "high-risk student visa applicants" were interviewed rather than undergoing the usual paper-based checks.

Beginning in Pakistan, and then moving to other countries, more than 2,300 prospective students were questioned.

In a speech to the Policy Exchange think tank in London, Mrs May said: "The lesson from that pilot was clear - abuse was rife, paper-based checks weren‟t working, and interviews, conducted by entry clearance officers with the freedom to use their judgement, work."

She added: "So I can announce that, from today, we will extend radically the Border Agency's interviewing programme. Starting with the highest-risk countries, and focusing on the route to Britain that is widely abused, student visas, we will increase the number of interviews to considerably more than 100,000, starting next financial year.

"From there, we will extend the interviewing programme further across all routes to Britain, wherever the evidence takes us. I believe this new approach will help us to root out the abuse of British visas, and improve the integrity of our immigration system."

'No current plans for cap'

Potential students are likely to be quizzed on their knowledge of English and details of the course they are planning to study.

The home secretary also announced that from April non-European PhD students who have completed their studies at UK universities will be automatically allowed to stay on for a year while trying to find a job or start a business, so the UK can benefit from their skills.

The home secretary said the government wanted to "strike a balance" between encouraging the lucrative market in higher education and ensuring visas are not a "backdoor route into working in Britain".

She added: "If you can speak English, and you can get a place on a proper course at a proper university, you can come to study in Britain.

"There is no cap on the number of students able to come here - and there are no current plans to introduce a cap."

Mrs May said the coalition had been "left to deal with the consequences of more than a decade of uncontrolled, mass immigration".

She denounced the student visa policy inherited from Labour as a "mess" which had been "abused on an industrial scale", with numbers of visas reaching a record 303,000 in one year.

And she blamed immigration for one-third of all new housing demand - saying that house prices could be 10% lower without the massive influx of migrants - and that it was "putting pressure on infrastructure and public services".

BBC home affairs correspondent Danny Shaw said the announcement over visas was a "major change to the immigration system".

Andrew Green, chairman of the Migration Watch UK group, said: "At last we have a home secretary who is honest about the consequences of mass immigration and ready to take on the bogus arguments for it."

But Public and Commercial Services union general secretary Mark Serwotka said: "It is impossible to see how this will be in any way feasible without a massive increase in staffing and resources overseas but this comes at a time when the Home Office is committed to cutting staff across the board, not increasing them."

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