Diplomat touts his trade as visa aide

September 24, 1999

A senior British diplomat is offering his services as an immigration consultant to universities in breach of Foreign Office rules.

A deputy vice-chancellor has condemned his actions, saying it damaged the reputation of education and brought the integrity of the United Kingdom visa system into question.

S. I. Wall, head of the visa section at the British Embassy in Beijing, has been offering "a select few universities" a service to help ensure that their prospective students gain easy entry to Britain.

In a letter to one new university, he said: "China, as I am sure you know, has a vast market of students who would like to further their studies in the United Kingdom. Many of them fail to obtain the necessary visa because they and/or their documents are not fully prepared for their immigration interview."

Mr Wall, who boasts more than ten years' experience in immigration in Beijing and Malaysia, said he could use his "skills" to "sift and prepare potential students before they submit their applications to the British embassy, thus increasing their chances of success".

He has been attempting to set up meetings with university managers to forward his private business, saying: "Having seen the potential market for my skills I am seriously considering taking early retirement from the Foreign Office and setting up my own immigration consultancy service focusing mainly on China, but possibly Malaysia as well - I was vice-consul there from 1991 to 1994."

Frank Griffiths, deputy vice- chancellor at Leeds Metropolitan University, one of the institutions targeted by Mr Wall, said that his activities not only harmed the reputation of the visa system, but of British higher education, especially in the light of ministers' drive to attract more overseas students to Britain.

"This type of activity is highly questionable. The process should be as objective as possible and this casts a shadow over the probity of the procedures," he said.

"Our government says it wants more overseas students to compete with Australia and the United States, but if visa officials are setting up private businesses, it is in their interests to make it more difficult for students, as there will be more of a market for their services when they retire. There are also questions of insider knowledge."

A spokesman for the Foreign Office said this week: "There are rules governing post-retirement employment and Mr Wall should have followed them. But we believe his failure to do so was a genuine error. Any application from him to our personnel people to see if he is able to take that form of employment after retirement will be considered under the usual procedures."

The spokesman would not comment on the department's attitude towards such private ventures, and the potential impact it could have on the integrity of Britain's visa laws or the impact it may have on ministers' attempts to attract more overseas students to British universities.

"From our position we are very concerned to ensure the integrity of our entry clearance rules and ensure that they are not damaged in any way," said the spokesman. "We take any potential conflict of interest very seriously."

Professor Griffiths welcomed the Foreign Office's statement but said it should issue guidance to every one of its embassies, to ensure the practice is not more widespread. Phil Baty

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