Student visa fraud: universities and governments ‘must be proactive’

Canada’s provincial system ‘allows more room for corruption’, says OBHE researcher

June 8, 2016

Universities and governments must be “proactive rather than reactive” in tackling student visa fraud to address the issue while remaining attractive to international students.

That is the view of Rachael Merola, senior researcher at the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education and author of a new article published by the organisation, “Combatting Student Visa Fraud: Top Destination Countries Employ Diverse Strategies”, which focuses on policies that have been implemented in the UK, US, Australia and Canada.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, she suggested that one “proactive strategy” would be for universities, governments, agents and students to work closer together and for there to be clearer guidelines in place so students are “well-informed” about how to legally enter a country for study.

“A lot of strategies that you see in place are more reactive than proactive. You can see in the US their strategy [of tightening student visa screenings] is a direct result of issues they’ve had with fraud in the past that they’ve found out has actually led to dangerous individuals being let into the country,” she said, referencing the fact that one of the 9/11 plane hijackers entered the country on a student visa.

“In many cases the reforms that all of the countries do exposes the extent of the problem. But being proactive is a great strategy long term. Cooperation will be the key to creating a lasting decrease in student visa fraud.”

Of the four countries analysed in the study, Ms Merola notes that Canada’s approach is the “softest”, as the nation does not actively monitor students after their arrival.

She added that while the Canadian government’s immigration department has put forward a proposal to limit student visas to those attending approved institutions, the process for granting degree-awarding powers is determined by each provincial government, which she said “can allow more room for corruption”. She said this has already “damaged” the country’s international reputation.

“The Chinese government warned their own students that there are some unscrupulous operators…in Canada, so there is an impact in terms of the attractiveness of the country as a study destination when there are a lot of cases of student visa fraud,” Ms Merola said.

“The fact [Canada] is one of the top study destinations for [international] students, coupled by the fact [universities] are overseen provincially, makes it especially susceptible to fraud, because there’s less ability to regulate across the entire country.”

She highlighted the US’ “novel strategy” of establishing the fake University of Northern New Jersey in order to lure unscrupulous student agents as one that was particularly effective, as it allowed the Department of Homeland Security to keep careful records of illegal activity, but she said it is unlikely this will be the government’s strategy going forward.

“If anything, the massive amount of coverage that this got would sound an alarm and might act as a deterrent in the future to unscrupulous agents and sham universities,” she said.

Ms Merola concluded that tackling student visa fraud in all four countries will be “an ongoing struggle”.

“I don’t think there is ever going to be an end or one policy that’s in place that will be totally effective. It’s going to be an issue that is constantly adapting to the context of the country and the student mobility trends around the world,” she said.

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