Colleges are havens for illegal immigrants and are being targeted by "human smugglers" who provide forged documents to enrol bogus overseas students, British diplomats have warned.
The "very worrying phenomenon", revealed in documents obtained by The THES, could undermine government plans to streamline immigration controls so as to attract 75,000 more foreign fee-paying students to Britain.
The British High Commission in Columbo, Sri Lanka, has warned several colleges that "human smugglers" are charging immigrants about Pounds 2,000 to provide admission to British colleges using forged educational qualifications and financial documents. It has asked the CID to investigate.
Melton Mowbray College in Leicestershire was warned in a letter from Rob Ostler, the entry clearance officer at the UK High Commission in Sri Lanka, that it, along with Thanet College in Kent "and others", "fit the exact profile" of those targeted by human smugglers and immigrants.
Mr Ostler's letter, which was written last summer, also warned that immigrants are legitimately meeting limited entry requirements for "low-level" courses and then disappearing. As it can cost illegal immigrants up to Pounds 10,000 to organise covert entry into Britain, he said even "a year's fees for a low-level course is a bargain for what amounts to the same end product" - entry to Britain.
The college is advised that a number of its students' applications are "hardly credible". One applicant to the college has been referred to the Home Office by the High Commission on suspicion of entering the UK on false pretences. Another disappeared soon after arriving at the college.
The Foreign Office this week confirmed that student visas are a favourite target for fraudsters. A spokesman said that 12 per cent of overseas student visa applications were rejected - double the rate of other visa applications. "This does show a high rate of abuse of the student visa provision," he said.
The concerns have emerged less than a week after the prime minister announced plans to make it "easier to enter" Britain on a student visa.
The Foreign Office spokesman said the initiative would not mean lax immigration rules.
Melton Mowbray's principal, Ken Masters, confirmed that he had experienced "problems" with visas for overseas students in the past, and not just from Sri Lanka. "I wouldn't say there had been a lot, but they are not isolated. We have had problems with students from Bangladesh, and one student from the West Indies buggered off as soon as he landed."
But he said Melton Mowbray was a responsible institution. "We are a small college, we take about 50 students a year, so we can keep proper control."
Mr Masters said that other colleges did not exercise "as much control", and that complacency - or greed - could undermine the government's drive. "If we have the backing of the prime minister, who is going to put more money into marketing and ease the visa situation, we need to support him in being much more on top of the problem. We have to make sure there isn't a stampede to breach immigration rules."
Clive Saville, chief executive of the UK Council on Overseas Student Affairs, said: "It is certainly the case that some colleges got greedy and lax about overseas students - but I would hope by now enough have got their fingers burnt to have wised up. No reputable college wants these students."
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