Recently the British Police carried out a series of raids in Manchester, Liverpool and Clitheroe and arrested 12 suspects of whom 11 are of Pakistani origin. It turned out that many of the arrested suspects had entered the UK on student visas, exploiting the UK’s supposedly ‘lax’ student visa rules. Very soon after, the British Home Office issued a statement to the effect that student visa checks in Pakistan had been tightened in the fortnight prior to these arrests by taking fingerprints from all student applicants and checking if they have a police record in Pakistan. I am not sure how much effect this measure will have. For one, Pakistani police records are unlikely to have a comprehensive list of all militants and potential militants. Secondly, many student-militants may not have a criminal record at all.
Following the arrests and the subsequent furore, Pakistan's high commissioner to the UK, Wajid Shamsul Hasan suggested that the UK should allow the Pakistani security and intelligence services to vet applicants for student visas. I am not sure what Mr. Hasan’s proposal means in light of the British Home Office statement that since the last fortnight all student applicants are having their fingerprints taken and checked against Pakistani police records. If Mr. Hasan’s offer of help is accepted, I hope Pakistani students don’t end up having to bribe Pakistani security officials to ensure that their security clearances are given in time.
For many British educational institutions, foreign students from outside the European Union (EU) are an important source of revenue, since they pay substantially higher fees than local and EU-based students. Though most foreign students arrive in the UK for masters’ courses, a substantial number of them are undergraduates and even school students. It is not only elite institutions like Cambridge, Oxford and the London School of Economics which have large numbers of foreign students. Even universities low down in the pecking order and polytechnics admit non-EU students by the hundreds. At the bottom of this chain are the bogus colleges that act enrol foreign students, collect fees from them and allow them to enter the UK and work illegally while on a student visa. British educational institutions which depend on foreign students have always lobbied for an increase in the number of visas given to foreign students and a smoother student visa issuing process.
Britain on one hand wants to attract foreign students to the UK and enable British educational institutions to compete with institutions in the US, Australia and New Zealand in the war for rich international students paying fees way above local rates. On the other, the British government does not want the foreign students graduating from British universities to get jobs which would otherwise go to British nationals. For this reason, British employers cannot obtain a work permit for a foreign employee if that position can be filled by a British or other EU national.
The main criterion used by foreign students to assess the value of their UK degree is its value in the British job market. To address this issue, the British government instituted the Science & Engineering Graduates Scheme (SEGS) in October 2004. Under SEGS, post graduate students in a specified number of disciplines were allowed to stay on and work in the UK for up to 12 months after graduating from a British institution, without the need for a work permit. From 1 May 2007, the SEGS scheme was replaced by the International Graduates Scheme (IGS). Unlike SEGS, the IGS applied to international students from all disciplines who completed a degree from a British institution. The IGS has now been replaced by the Tier 1 (Post-Study Work) Migrant scheme, which allows students to stay on in the UK for two years after graduation and work, provided they obtain 75 points for their academic qualifications and work experience under a scoring table that is a vital cog in the newly instituted points based system for migrants to the UK.
The sad fact faced by international students in the UK is that after graduation most of them fail to find employment commensurate with their qualifications, with an employer who is willing to obtain a regular work permit for them. What has instead become common is for students to obtain a visa at their own expense under the IGS or Tier 1 (Post-Study Work) Migrant scheme, work in a position not appropriate for their achievements and abilities, and leave at the end of their visa or stay on as illegal immigrants.
In the light of the recent arrests, the argument for facilitating even easier access to British universities for foreign students is likely to flounder. Even before these arrests were made, the British government had required British educational institutions to register with the UK Border Agency before they are allowed to sponsor international students under the student tier (tier 4) of Britain's tough new points-based system. Of the more than 2,100 universities, independent schools and colleges that applied to accept international students, around 460 institutions were rejected.
Visa checks carried out by the British High Commission in Pakistan can only serve a very limited purpose. Visa checks can screen out applicants with fake degrees and bogus documents. They cannot screen out a genuine student who has the right qualifications and a militant or fundamentalist mind. The home office authorities are most probably well aware of this fact. Nevertheless, there is likely to be an increase in the number of student visa applications rejected by the British High Commission in Islamabad and Deputy High Commission in Karachi. Indian student applicants too may be affected since Jihadi elements can be found in India as well and fake passports and bogus documents can be obtained just as easily in India as in Pakistan.