Student visas: Danger to the UK border?

13 February 2010

Yes – Susanna Lada

According to the Home Secretary Alan Johnson, perhaps as much as 30% of migrants who came into the UK were on student visas and a number were adults taking short courses, not degrees. With deceitful visa applications as a means for settling in Britain becoming increasingly common, the UK should remain open to those foreign students aiming to come to the UK for legitimate study. Others ought to be prevented from abusing the system.

Those coming to the UK masquerading as students but who are in effect migrant jobseekers or potential terrorists should be thwarted from being granted a student visa. A study by the London School of Economics last year presented evidence of a considerable surge in the illegal population since 2001. Illegal immigrants are a potential source of threat, presenting dangers to both themselves and Britain.

They also wreak havoc with the economy. If there are holes in the student-visa allocation system, suspected terrorists and other would-be immigrants into the UK might easily abuse the system and stay on after their student visas expire.

The new stricter measures in place sound sensible. Since English is the language of tuition in most of the university courses concerned, the requirement that successful applicants from outside the European Union have to speak it to just under GCSE standard, rather than beginner level as at present, appears a valid criterion. Students on courses below degree level will only be allowed to work for 10 hours a week, instead of the current 20, giving foreign students more scope to concentrate on their studies. Furthermore, those on courses shorter than six months would not be allowed to bring dependants into the country, while the dependants of students on courses below degree level would not be allowed to work. This also sounds reasonable and would limit the scope for abuse of the system. Moreover, visas for courses below degree level with a work placement will only be granted if the participating institutions are on a special new register; an idea that should surely be applauded.

Exit checks to prove that students do leave Britain before their student visa runs out may also be a good idea. They would get rid of the current frequent practice of students moving from course to course in order to stay on and would stop overseas students from applying for work permits without going home first.

The proposal that foreign students should pay a cash deposit, which would be lost if they did not leave the country when their course finished, might also prove a good deterrent for potential illegal job-seekers outstaying their welcome. There are culprits on the British side as well. Bogus colleges that facilitate the abuse of the system need to be tracked down and closed.

Admittedly, a precarious balance must be struck. Talented overseas students should not be put off from applying to study in the United Kingdom. But if these new rules are obeyed, all that legitimate students would have to face is the additional hassle of more bureaucracy. But as anyone who has ever applied for an MPhil at Cambridge University knows, this is the first hurdle one must overcome in the pursuit of British academic laurels.

No – Kara Cox Anderson

It is no surprise to watch one of the world’s most sophisticated countries fall so neatly into the age old tradition of targeting immigrants when the economy flags.

As if foreign-born dishwashers and shop clerks here on student visas played an integral role in the collapse of the banking system. Alan Johnson’s February 7 BBC video clip on the subject is precious. The nerve of those non-English-speaking people with families who entered the country legally! If governments leave gaping holes in the border they should not be surprised when they are exploited.

Close the bogus colleges, establish exit checks, continue with face scans and fingerprinting and move on. But make more of an effort not to actively discourage genuinely serious international students who wish to study in recognised tertiary institutions in the UK.

I applied for my first UK student visa in 2004 and admit that the process seemed less thorough than might have been desired. Yet, last year’s revamp was simply more tedious and expensive, not more rigorous.

On the up side, however, I was glad to see they saw fit to retain the always amusing ‘Are you are a terrorist?’ question.

As for changing the permitted work week from 20 hours to 10, that is a symbolic gambit only. Those who want to work more will. The only difference is that they are more likely to do so illegally, at substandard wages, in substandard conditions and behind the back of the tax man. I fail to see how this would prove beneficial to native workers. The burden of the new visa requirements will fall hardest on those who stand to benefit the most from the opportunity to study in the UK – lower and middle class citizens from less advantaged countries who wish to improve their situation.

But even those with more established credentials will be hurt. It was disheartening to report to college to have my passport scanned in week two and see a big box of welcome packets unclaimed by Brazilian lawyers and Middle Eastern development students. Perhaps they had nefarious designs to drop out and work at Asda but odds are that this is not the case.

Finally, I suspect that many students with legitimate pursuits will be discouraged from applying, perhaps more so than those people with more dubious objectives. With regard to the £5-8 billion revenue generated by foreign students, the UK must compete for prestige and cash inflow in an increasingly international market place.

An intolerant approach to immigration, particularly with younger people whose views will come to define the world in succeeding generations, is folly.

If I had known in advance the rigmarole I would be subjected to in order to obtain my visa, which will only become more onerous next year, I might have looked to Australia and South Africa for my international experience.

Cambridge or not, I have a hard time justifying dumping £40,000 into any economy for the privilege of being treated like a criminal while simultaneously subsidising tuition for locals.

While lacking the Corpus Clock, Cape Town and Sydney do have year round beaches.

As for the English language students who are doing their part to help keep anglophiles monolingual, I suppose that as an American I should not complain too loudly.

England’s loss may prove an economic and cultural gain for the United States.