Source: The Telegraph
Fears over the number of immigrants exploiting the student visa system to enter Britain illegally have been raised by a Telegraph investigation.
More than 100,000 foreign students were suspected of abusing the system to get into the country last year, 20 times the figure of two years ago.
The disclosure raises concerns that tough new rules brought in to clamp down on abuse of the system are being routinely flouted.
Under the regulations introduced in 2009, anyone from outside the European Union coming to study full-time in Britain must be sponsored by a college or university licensed by the UK Border Agency (UKBA). Institutions must also report any concerns to immigration officials.
The new figures, obtained by The Telegraph using freedom of information laws, reveal that the UKBA received 106,698 warnings about foreign students in the academic year 2011/12. This compares with 77,757 the previous year and just 4,795 in the 12 months before that. Over the same period, the total number of foreign students has risen only slightly, from 405,805 in 2009/10 to 435,235 in 2011/12.
This newspaper has also established that some colleges have been able to get around the licensing rules by registering multiple colleges at the same site so they can transfer students between them.
David Davies, the Conservative MP for Monmouth and a former member of the home affairs select committee, said the figures suggested the scale of student visa abuse for the first time. “Colleges are under new obligations to make these reports and they indicate how it is highly likely that large numbers of foreign students have abused the system over many years,” he said.
“Ministers were right to require colleges to report on missing students, despite all the criticism they received for doing so, and colleges were wrong to complain about it. The Government must continue to work hard to stamp out such abuse of British hospitality.”
The UKBA was not able to say what happened to all of the students about whom it was alerted. Last year, the organisation was criticised in an official report for ignoring tens of thousands of such warnings from universities and colleges about foreign students, suggesting that many of them could have remained in the country.
Under the system, colleges, universities and language schools that do not report concerns to the authorities face losing their licence to sponsor students, known as “highly trusted status”.
Since 2009, more than 800 such institutions have lost their licence, according to comparethecourse.com, the only organisation that keeps an updated register.
The Telegraph has established that some of these colleges are able to sidestep this punishment by transferring students to “partner colleges” — often run on the same site, by the same staff — that still have a licence.
Forbes Graduate School (FGS) in Slough, Berkshire, had its licence suspended this February.
The college’s director also runs three other colleges from the same building, with the same staff and courses.
One of the colleges, the London College of Finance and Accounting, is a highly trusted sponsor – the highest level of sponsorship.
Ravinder Kumar, the director and principal of the four colleges, said he operates them in this way so that if one college has its licence suspended or revoked he can move the students to another of his colleges, without them having to apply for a new visa.
He said: “Since FGS had its licence suspended last month we haven’t been able to take any more foreign students. The students that are already enrolled feel insecure because they don’t know what is happening. So we move them to another college to reassure them.
“The UKBA rules are ridiculous. They took the licence because we hadn’t reported to them when our students weren’t attending classes.
“But we follow strictly the guidelines they give us. I agree the UKBA should take action against dummy colleges but genuine colleges should not be given such treatment.”
After the college threatened the UKBA with court action its licence was restored earlier this month.
He said: “When another of our colleges had its licence suspended in 2011 we took it to the High Court, which ordered the UKBA to restore the licence. We don’t believe the rules are fair or practical.”
Aldgate College in Whitechapel, east London, had its licence suspended in August last year.
Haemin Abdul Aziz, its director, is also the director of London Corporate College (LCC), which is a highly trusted sponsor. The colleges occupy the same floor in a building. Mr Aziz said he was seeking legal advice to challenge in court the UKBA’s decision to take its licence.
He said: “At the moment, the students are still formally registered with Aldgate College. But if we lose the court case and our licence is revoked then we will have to transfer the students to LCC.”
The 189,250 warnings about foreign students over three years covered a range of circumstances about which colleges are required to update the UKBA. They included: 70,815 reports of a significant change to a student’s circumstances; 52,309 reports of a university or college having stopped sponsoring a student and 16,839 reports that a student had discontinued their studies. The figure also included 32,423 reports of students failing to enrol on the course within the correct time frame; as well as 1,786 reports that students may have breached the conditions of their leave to remain in the UK. Almost 200,000 student visas were issued in 2011/12 and about 1,800 universities, colleges and language schools are registered as student sponsors.
The student visa system has been hit by a series of controversies in recent months. In August last year, border officials stripped London Metropolitan University of its right to sponsor overseas students. The following month, it emerged that the UKBA had ignored tens of thousands of warnings from universities and colleges about foreign students.
It meant that 23,000 bogus students were allowed to remain in Britain when they should have been sent home. Many have still not been traced. In November last year, it emerged that foreign students were responsible for a backlog of more than 300,000 asylum claims.
Sir Andrew Green, the chairman of MigrationWatch UK, said: “This is astonishing evidence of the sheer scale of abuse of the British education system by foreign students.
“The Home Office must follow up on these warnings and, if necessary, close down institutions that are failing to live up to their responsibilities.
“It’s remarkable that directors whose companies have been stripped of trusted status should be able to dodge checks so easily.
“There must be more focus on those who are behind potential abuse.”