The minister responsible for preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) has mounted a robust defence of a controversial vetting scheme for foreign postgraduate students.
Speaking exclusively to Times Higher Education on the day of the Mumbai terror attacks last week, former Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell - now at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) - said that less than 1 per cent of applications made to study in the UK had been rejected under the Academic Technology Approval Scheme (Atas). He said Atas was a "proportionate" response to the problem and "here to stay".
Government figures show that 71 of the 12,373 applications to study in the UK by 11,091 individuals were rejected in the scheme's first year - a figure Mr Rammell described as "very very small".
"(Media) stories ... create a dramatic impression that there is a major problem here when there is not," he said, referring to a recent report that suggested the scheme had intercepted up to 100 suspected terrorists posing as students.
Introduced in November 2007 by the FCO, the scheme requires postgraduate students from non-European Union countries to be vetted by government officials. It seeks to ensure that any knowledge or skills they obtain from their courses will not be used to build WMDs.
But critics said it discriminated against certain nationalities, was often an administrative headache for academics who had to write detailed accounts of studies, and could put students off coming to the UK because it was not streamlined with the visa application process and there had been processing delays.
A student posting on the Nature news website last December said that he had been barred from studying for a PhD in the School of Materials at the University of Manchester despite completing a MSc there, and having a research council scholarship and a supportive letter from his school. "They rejected my appeal without giving any reason," he wrote. The student has since left the university.
A full review of the scheme is due to take place in the new year.