Ebdon defends sector's student visa methods

April 16, 2009

Accusations that universities have been complicit in the exploitation of the student visa system by bogus applicants have been rejected by a leading vice-chancellor.

Last week, police arrested 12 men on suspicion of planning a terrorist attack, 11 of whom were Pakistani nationals on student visas. After the arrests, universities came under fire for failing to properly vet and monitor their overseas intake.

Now Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and chairman of the Million+ think-tank, has stepped in to defend the sector. He reproached "the usual suspects such as Anthony Glees", director of the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham, for "suggesting that we don't check applicants properly".

Professor Ebdon said, "I have been out to Pakistan myself to check that everything is being done correctly and that all our students are bona fide."

All universities have been inspected by the UK Borders Agency in preparation for the new points-based immigration system that comes into force this year, he added.

Professor Ebdon said: "The vast majority of abuses of the student visa system relate to bogus colleges, which will be stamped out under the new system.

"The previous system meant that people could get a visa provided they had an offer letter. If they did not turn up at your university, you assumed they had gone elsewhere. Now they have to come to the institution sponsoring them."

Bedfordshire is trialling a swipe-card system that sees students check in to lectures, he added, ensuring that their attendance is monitored as required by the new rules.

His comments came after Phil Woolas, Minister for Borders and Immigration, said that the student visa system was a "major loophole in Britain's border controls".

Precise details of last week's arrests remain unclear, although on 14 April Liverpool John Moores University said that one of its students remained in custody.

A spokeswoman said a second student, who was arrested outside the university's library along with a friend on 8 April and released the following day, was a "franchise student" studying for a two-year diploma with education firm Kaplan Financial.

One of the suspects was released but rearrested on immigration offences, and there was speculation that most of the men might be deported rather than charged, possibly for breaching the conditions of their visas by working longer hours than permitted.

Rizwaan Sabir, a student at the University of Nottingham who was arrested last year for possessing a copy of an al-Qaeda manual, which he was using for research into Islamic terrorism, said: "The security services will be under enormous pressure to bring immigration charges if the men are found to be innocent of terrorism charges.

"If this happens, universities must stand behind their students and make sure they are not deported for minor breaches in order to save the security apparatus' face."

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com.

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