Foreign students 'security problem', says Kim Howells

Official stamps a passport
Image caption A report says there are 19,000 foreign students studying in Wales

Recruiting overseas students to study at Welsh, and UK, universities is causing a security problem, says an ex-Foreign Office minister.

Dr Kim Howells said the government was in two minds about tackling the issue.

The former Pontypridd MP believes campus security will become even more important in the future.

He said the Libyan conflict highlighted a growing problem in the past few years in which the Foreign Office had been concerned about students from there.

Dr Howells told BBC Radio Wales' Eye on Wales programme: "The Home Office was very concerned about students from Libya.

"Libya had been arming the IRA and sent them a lot of explosives and Semtex.

"Gaddafi had been arming terrorist groups across the world and there were worries that the students coming in could be agents for the regime coming to cause mischief and to spy on their fellow countrymen."

Dr Howells, who was in the Foreign Office at the time, said it had been a growing problem ever since Libya was brought in from the fold in 2006/7.

He said British universities, and Welsh universities in particular, had concentrated on recruiting more and more overseas students over the past 20 years.

"They pay the maximum amount of fees and there is no question of a government subsidy. It's going to become more market orientated as the government makes cuts to funding," he said.

"Besides anything else, there are real problems in that for security."

Dr Howells, who chaired parliament's intelligence and security committee before he retired at the last election, said he thought the government was in two minds about security.

"Successive governments have known that there's a genuine desire to encourage academic freedom. But they know that there are some very bad people out there," he said.

Image caption Dr Kim Howells says with huge numbers of foreign students, security is an issue

"They're recruiting violent jihadists and there are people, without putting too fine a point on it, who are engaged in espionage. They are trying to steal secrets... technological and defence secrets.

"With the huge numbers of foreign students on campus, the security issue becomes much more important than it was in the past."

A report commissioned by the Wales International Consortium, and seen by Eye on Wales, said there were 19,000 foreign students studying in Wales.

Some 60% were from outside the European Union and therefore paid the very highest fees.

The contribution is worth £237m, which is larger than agriculture, and on a par with Cardiff's hotel and restaurant sector.

Higher education in Wales is devolved to the Welsh Government. Education Minister Leighton Andrews was invited to take part in the programme but declined.

Eye on Wales looks at foreign students attending Welsh universities on BBC Radio Wales, 1300 BST on Sunday, 10 July.

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