Appearing before the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, Carolyn Bartlett, head of student migration policy at the Home Office, gave details of a pilot scheme for interviewing international applicants before they are granted visas.
“[With] about 17 per cent of those interviewed from universities, our entry clearance officers had some concerns about their genuineness,” she said. A number lacked “the language skills that would be expected from those coming to universities”.
A Home Office spokesman later clarified that “concerns” could relate to poor language skills or doubts about whether the students were going to the UK for educational reasons only.
The students questioned had been accepted by universities or colleges but had not yet been issued with visas.
In May, Jeremy Oppenheim, head of immigration at the UK Border Agency, revealed that the pilot interviews had been taking place in 40 countries and that some applicants had difficulty answering questions including: “What is your name?”
Julie Elliott, Labour MP for Sunderland Central and a committee member, questioned whether the interviews were fair, adding that they could be “frightening”.
“It’s the fact that they’ve been picked out, removed from their friends and interviewed under quite clinical circumstances when they weren’t expecting it,” she said.
But Damian Green, the immigration minister, who was also questioned by the committee, said: “If you can speak a language to that level [to enter a UK university], then you should be able to pass a conversational language test.”
If a student “can’t speak a word of English”, it does not seem “unreasonable” to question “whether they are actually going to benefit from the course”, Mr Green argued.
The committee also heard from Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, who argued that students should not be counted in the UK’s net migration statistics.
In a press release, he adds: “Countries around the world are competing to attract these students, and yet in Britain the government is seeking to limit numbers in order to meet its net migration target.
“Four-fifths of international students are in the country for only five years – they should not be the focus of the government’s immigration policy and need to be removed from the…statistics.”