Wednesday, 18 April 2012

A return to the bad old days?

For many years international students applying for a visa to study in the UK had to prove their intention to return home at the end of their studies.  This gave Entry Clearance Officers an extraordinary power to base decisions on subjective judgements (what constitutes proof for an 18 year old about to enter a whole new life by virtue of embarking on a degree abroad?)  One of the greatest strengths of the Points Based System was, at least on paper, the abolition of such subjective tests – decisions should be based on evidence of ability to study not on judgements about intentions.

The recent press coverage trailing plans to re-introduce visa interviews raise alarm bells, not least because they appear to be politically motivated headline chasing, rather than well-developed policy decisions.  No details are available yet to confirm the procedures and criteria which will apply, nor has any evidence been placed in the public domain to explain why, when the Olympics are already placing a strain on the UK Border Agency’s resources, and overseas posts in particular, resources are to be diverted to interviewing student visa applicants in one or more countries.

Earlier this year the UK Border Agency told us, in response to our Tier 4 survey, that they had no plans to change the requirements for English language testing, as this had already raised the standard of English among applicants.  Yet press coverage of the “secret pilots” tells us that language is one of the concerns.  No details have been published about what gives them cause for concern about the language levels of students interviewed.  Do UKBA have reason to believe the Secure English Language Tests they themselves selected and approved have proved liable to fraud?  Do they believe UKBA staff are better equipped than universities to judge the English language capabilities of students?  Surely Highly Trusted Sponsors should be warned as a matter of urgency of any weaknesses in the system which UKBA have identified.

Sponsors will be equally keen to know if UKBA has information about fraudulent qualifications or financial information, having emphasised since the introduction of the Points Based System that if the responsibility for policing these was shifted from UKBA to institutions, there must be intelligence sharing between the two.  It was never logical to expect institutions, working at a distance, to be able to vet documents with the same access to local knowledge as ECOs working in each country (or even, with the hub and spoke system, working on a group of countries).

We hope that UKBA will speedily be sharing with sponsors (who are all by definition highly trusted these days), the concerns it has about the applicants in its pilot study, and will be working with the sector to identify how best any remaining abuses in the system can be rooted out.  It is in no-one’s interest to perpetuate loopholes for the unscrupulous, but neither is it in the interest of UKBA to leave sponsors out of the loop. 

And after extensive bad press for the UK’s student visa system, the last thing we can afford at this point is any suggestion that international students will once more be subject to erratic and subjective judgement by UK visa officials.

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