Time to take responsibility

November 27, 2008

Pat Brady's letter regarding reporting the absence of overseas students (20 November) is poorly reasoned.

He complains that asking universities to report phantom students is an attempt to "transfer the cost of surveillance from the UK Border Agency to the universities". This bears no examination. Universities are the primary beneficiaries of these students, who are allowed into the UK on the basis of having places at institutions. It cannot be unreasonable to expect universities to share in the responsibility of ensuring these are bona fide students, not illegal migrants.

The cost to universities of doing this will be trivial: passing on information we already have, such as seminar absences, non-submitted work, unpaid fees and rent. For the UK Border Agency to ascertain students' bona fides once they are here would involve thousands of staff in termly raids on every university town, maintaining intrusive surveillance on students, checking out whether they are at the addresses they give, waiting outside classes to see if they turn up, and so on. The idea that they could do this is preposterous.

Many "students" simply disappear, working illegally, depriving people who are entitled to work of the opportunity to do so, and depriving everyone of the tax revenues from lawful employment. Moreover, they are depriving many legitimate would-be students of the opportunity of benefiting from a UK university education, as precautions by visa staff mean that many genuine students are denied visas. A system that gave the Government confidence that if fake students did get here we would quickly know they were fake and that efforts could be made to track them while the trail was still warm would allow readier granting of visas, benefiting both students and institutions.

Universities are in the best position to do this monitoring at nominal cost (doubtless more than offset by increased numbers of legitimate students getting visas). It is therefore the reasonable solution. How about some "corporate responsibility" from academics?

Richard Austen-Baker, Lecturer in law, Lancaster University Law School.

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