The comment that wasn't free


January 12, 2011

An article attacking our paper on bogus students appeared in the Guardian on 9/01/11. The response below was offered to the paper but they declined to publish.

Bogus foreign students, and indeed bogus colleges in Britain, are a serious problem - not withstanding the IPPR attempts to quibble with our description of some of the costs. Bogus colleges damage the reputation of British higher education - its key selling point. And bogus students cost the tax payer hundreds of millions of pounds a year.

To take the quibbles first. The IPPR suggested that the data are uncertain, that we exaggerated the numbers and that we relied on the lump of Labour fallacy. In dealing with illegal behaviour it is surely obvious that the data will be weak - that is why we presented our results as a broad range from just over £300 million to just under £500 million a year. Secondly, our paper specifically states that the number of jobs in an economy is not fixed but at times of high unemployment illegal immigrants, by working illegally take jobs that otherwise might well be available for a British worker who remains unemployed.

The broader position is that we are admitting nearly half a million students, student visitors and their dependants to Britain every year. The previous system of interviewing has effectively been abolished and there are still no checks on foreigners departing the UK.

In our view, the new "Tier 4" system is fundamentally unsound as a means of ensuring that only genuine students are admitted to the UK. The key question is whether the applicant intends to return home. However, there is now very little effort made to ascertain this. Whatever the limitations of interviews, they were a significant deterrent to bogus applicants. The Immigration Officer was able to assess the standard of English as well as the coherence and plausibility of the applicant. Now there is little to be lost in submitting a speculative application. It is surely significant that, in the year after the introduction of the new scheme, applications from India increased by 80%, from Bangladesh by over 300% and from Nepal by over 1,000%.

The new system is promoted as being "transparent and logical". In reality, the transparency is an aid to fraud and the logic has been stood on its head. Now, instead of the applicant having to satisfy the Immigration Officer that they intend to return home, the Immigration Officer has to have “evidence” on which to base a refusal.

The new system depends on the issue of a "Certificate of Acceptance for Study (CAS)" which is issued by the educational institution in Britain. In the nature of things, the admissions tutor will have very limited knowledge of either the candidates or the conditions in the country of origin. What he will know is that the college has a clear financial interest in granting the certificate. In the country itself, many colleges employ "agents" to help fill in the forms; they too have a financial interest in a visa being granted. Thereafter, it is box ticking. The applicant provides a photograph, fingerprints, a forty-two page application form, and copies of certificates and bank statements. The bundle is then sent off to an immigration section, sometimes in a different country, to be checked over and for the visa to be issued.

That is effectively it. On arrival at a UK airport, the Immigration Officer has very limited powers but the sheer number of students arriving makes it impractical to intervene in all but a few cases. It is notable that when the Prime Minister and Home Secretary visited Heathrow recently, immigration officers pointed to weaknesses in this student system as their main concern.

Genuine students do not, of course, add to net migration since, unless they marry a UK citizen or obtain a work permit, they return home at the end of their course. By contrast, bogus students do stay on and thereby add to net migration.

It is surely obvious, therefore, that any serious attempt to reduce net immigration, must address this huge gap in our immigration system. For a start, it is absurd to apply a complex box ticking arrangement to countries of origin where there is little or no risk of overstaying - such as the United States and Japan. Equally, in countries from which students are very likely to overstay we need to re-introduce into the system an element of human judgement - otherwise known as common sense. That means restoring the possibility of interviews and returning to immigration officers in overseas posts the discretion to refuse applications which they judge to be bogus. None of this should be controversial but expect vocal special pleading from interest groups who benefit financially from the present sorry state of affairs.



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