Border officers have been accused of refusing visas to international students on “arbitrary” grounds after the introduction of interviews to test applicants’ English skills and genuineness.
From this month, at least 100,000 credibility interviews will be conducted every year in an attempt to weed out bogus students, the Home Office has said, but there are fears that they are actually being used to deter students and cut net migration.
A report by the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA) claims that the interviews can result in “unpredictable and subjective” decisions. In one example, a student was allegedly refused a visa because border staff thought that study in the UK was a bad use of her deceased father’s money, although this decision was eventually overturned.
Pilot interviews between December 2011 and February 2012 found that almost a third of students could be judged as not genuine, according to the Home Office, although the proportion was 14 per cent for university applicants. Following the trial, the Home Office introduced credibility tests for about 5 per cent of applicants the following July.
To gauge the impact of this first wave of interviews, UKCISA gathered responses from 83 institutions, including 57 in higher education.
Lack of credibility was the main reason given for refusal, according to Tier 4 Credibility Interviews: UKCISA Survey Report, released last month. In most circumstances, the reasons given were “potentially in line with the guidance”, the report acknowledges. But in many cases the refusals were subjective and possibly unjust, it argues.
One student was rejected because they had not previously travelled outside Pakistan and so could “not demonstrate any previous compliance with the immigration rules of another country”, one respondent says.
Officers were “sceptical” about the intentions of any student not going to study at a Russell Group university, says another.
Several students were refused visas because they could not give “specific module content” about an undergraduate foundation course, the report adds.
There is also concern that immigration officers imposed a higher English language bar than necessary, and that students clammed up in the stress of the interview.
“It is unclear what training or qualifications the [officers] have to make them able to decide who is a ‘genuine’ student” and who can speak an appropriate level of English, one respondent complains.
In December 2012, Theresa May, the home secretary, announced a further 100,000 such interviews this financial year focusing on students from “high-risk” countries.
But Dominic Scott, chief executive of UKCISA, said there were fears that the measures were “yet one more administrative mechanism to reduce quite substantially the number of students coming to the UK in pursuit of net migration policies”.
The government has pledged to cut net migration to the “tens of thousands” by 2015.
A Home Office spokeswoman said: “Increasing our interviewing capability allows us to identify and stop those trying to abuse the system.”
It was announced last month that the UK Border Agency, which had been conducting the interviews, will be scrapped, with its functions split up and moved back under direct Home Office control.