UKBA’s student visa changes ‘caused chaos’, say MPs

5 Sep 12
The UK Border Agency created chaos in the student visa system through a poorly planned and ill-considered series of reforms, MPs have said.
By Mark Smulian | 5 September 2012

The UK Border Agency created chaos in the student visa system through a poorly planned and ill-considered series of reforms, MPs have said.

That indictment has come from the Public Accounts Committee, which said the errors made by the agency in 2009 had left it to ‘play catch up’ in a system it had laid open to abuse.

The Home Office introduced a points-based system for student visas in 2009, under which applicants had to be sponsored by an educational institution licensed by the agency.

Responsibility for testing whether applicants were likely to comply with their visa conditions was transferred from the agency to the institution concerned.

But the points based system was introduced before proper controls were in place to replace the old ones, according to PAC chair Margaret Hodge.

‘The result of the agency’s poorly planned and ill-thought out course of action was chaos: an immediate high level of abuse of the new system and a surge in the number of student visas,’ she said.

‘Since then, the agency has been playing catch-up, continually adjusting the rules and procedures to try to tackle abuse.’

This had caused, ‘a huge amount of bureaucracy for universities and an increasingly complex system for students to navigate… a bad situation has been made worse by the poor customer support being provided by the agency’.

The UKBA should act to ‘reduce the burden on those students and institutions who pose a low risk’, the PAC report said.

Even where students illegally in the UK were identified, the UKBA had been slow to remove them and ‘unacceptably slow to act’ even when colleges told it of abuses.

‘The agency implemented the new system before proper controls were in place,’ the report stated. ‘It removed the controls it relied on under the old system; primarily, intentions testing and spot check interviews by entry clearance officers, before it had replaced them with new checks and controls.’

Constant changes made by the UKBA to try to solve the problems it created had ‘made it very difficult and costly for students and education institutions to keep up to date with the increasingly complex set of rules and guidance that has emerged’.

Responding to the report, a Home Office spokesman said: ‘This government has introduced radical reforms in order to stamp out abuse of the student visa system.

‘Tough new rules have seen 500 fewer colleges being able to sponsor international students, and last week London Metropolitan University's licence to teach non-EU students was revoked after it failed to address serious systemic failings.’

The PAC report came as London Metropolitan University said it would take legal action against the revocation. This has applied even to students legitimately at the university, forcing them to hurriedly seek alternative courses and putting at risk some £30m of fee income.

Vice-chancellor Malcolm Gillies said the university ‘in the strongest possible terms challenges the outcome [of UKBA’s decision]’.

Gillies said there was no evidence of systemic failings, and that stringent checks had been made on students’ status.

‘The UKBA has not provided any constructive advice to the sector on this matter, despite being asked to on numerous occasions,’ he said. ‘UKBA officers ignored information that was made available to them when they conducted their audit.’

He added that the UKBA’s requirements had ‘changed substantially at least 14 times in the past three years’. 


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