Comment from Scotland below. The Scots welcome anybody, as long as they are not Catholic. But even they don’t like the blatantly fraudulent entry of “students” that the British government makes only token efforts to tackle
The Home Secretary was trying to talk tough yesterday as the government finally moved to tackle “the Achilles heel” of Britain’s immigration system. But in addressing the abuse of student visas, was Alan Johnson doing more than trying to score points in what promises to be a key fighting ground in the General Election?
In mid-2007, Andrew Denholm, The Herald’s education correspondent, exposed a number of bogus colleges in Glasgow that were taking large fees from overseas students for questionable or non-existent courses. There were hundreds of others across the UK, some of which were mere brass-plate operations with pretentious websites. Some acted as fronts for illegal immigration. Many of those coming in on poorly policed student visas were in Britain to work illegally, rather than further their studies. The same system can be a conduit for potential terrorists.
Britain is a popular choice for bright foreign students seeking further or higher education qualifications. They add at least £5bn a year to the UK economy and the full fees they pay are especially welcome in Scotland, where top-up fees from home-based students, an extra source of income, rightly have been resisted. But the widespread abuse of the student visa system besmirches the country’s well-founded reputation in this area, especially when the charlatans claim with bona fide institutions.
As Immigration Minister Phil Woolas admitted, bogus colleges are the Achilles heel of the immigration system. The new rules will impose a more exacting English language test and allow students on short courses to work no more than 10 hours per week. Institutions offering non-degree courses will have to feature on a new Highly Trusted Sponsors List. However, if this title is to avoid irony, it must be policed more rigorously than its predecessor. Some of the colleges highlighted by The Herald appeared on the previous Home Office list and one reappeared under a new name after being barred. The UK Border Agency often gives advance warnings of inspections and the problems have been exacerbated by the lack of exit checks at ports and airports.
In addition, the splitting of responsibilities between several government departments, as well as the police and trading standards, aggravates the issue, as does the misleading use of the term “college”.
Abuse of student visas serves to stoke support for those who adopt the “fortress Britain” approach, which is profoundly unhelpful in Scotland, a country that needs a steady supply of enthusiastic, hard-working immigrants and welcomes genuine students. Scotland has special need of a fair, coherent immigration system, not an easily abused student visa scheme, or colleges that exist primarily for the enrichment of their owners or as a backdoor for illegal immigration. It has taken the government far too long to get to grips with this issue.