Opinion: How student visas are creating crime incentives

I am tired of reading arrant rubbish about student visas in the newspapers. So let me (as someone who helps to administer a small private college) supply an insider’s view of what is really happening.

Most political parties support the new “Points-Based System” of immigration rules as a Good Thing, and maybe it would be, if only the Home Office was fit for purpose. In practice, the UK Border Agency simply cannot keep up with its workload. Therefore the process of licensing private colleges to sponsor student visa applications is running months late and has actually tipped the balance of advantage away from honestly run colleges towards the dishonestly run ones. In 2009, some tiny colleges invested in paperwork not teachers, got a provisional UKBA licence, imported a thousand students, and banked lots of fees. If their licence was taken away they either fought the UKBA with lawyers or closed down and started another college.

Sounds cynical? Yes, but as a business strategy it worked all too well. Actually the UKBA had no need for the whole licensing business in order to identify and prosecute dishonest colleges. Just send round some dark-skinned mystery shoppers: “Hallo. I want to join your college. I’ll pay you £500 for a student ID card and you’ll never see me again.” Money in the bank for a dodgy college. Big saving on Council Tax and travel costs for the “student”.

The really big problem in the new system lies in the attempt to impose quotas upon individual colleges. This instantly gives student visas a huge financial value and creates incentives for crime. Worst of all, quotas apply to visa applications, not visas granted. At present only about half of all applications turn into real live bums on seats in colleges. So a quota-limited college makes a big loss on each visa application that is refused. Obviously the UKBA wants colleges to stringently vet their applicants, but that is impossible if the college is in London and the applicant is in Chandigarh. So colleges mainly filter applications by insisting on up-front payment of first year fees and refunding on visa applications that are unsuccessful.

Imagine how you would feel if your family rustles up £9000 for your education, but your UK visa application is turned down on a technicality. It takes 3 months to return the money to where it came from, except that you end up £500 out of pocket. That is the sober reality for thousands of relatively poor young people in places like India or Nigeria who strike unlucky in the unsavoury lottery that UK further education has now become. No wonder that newspapers from Delhi to Dhaka are full of angry articles by people who are not quite sure who are the real Bad Guys: various colleges, local agencies, or the British government.

I could rabbit on for pages about the sheer illogicality of the new system. How many mistakes the UK visa-processing people make. How the UKBA simply does not answer its phone or respond to queries. How nothing happens to absconded students even if they are reported to the Home Office. How all those student passport scans and other personal details are a massive Identity Theft danger. How an insistence on university-style classroom teaching rules Britain out of teaching various hands-on subjects.

Government initiatives often achieve the opposite of the stated intentions, and yet another example is playing out before our eyes. I see no evidence that any party has yet come up with a really intelligent way to handle student visas, but it is quite clear that the resources currently assigned to Tier 4 of the Points-Based System are simply not up to the job.

* Editor’s note on the author: this article was written by the head of a private college, who understandably prefers to remain anonymous. They are a long-standing Liberal Democrat member.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Quite. The whole system is a crock designed by racists to appease racists. The UKBA is an organisation run on spite and incompetence.

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th Jan '10 - 9:37am

    My own involvement in higher education admissions suggests to me that few of these private colleges are any good. I’ve seen so many poor kids from abroad thoroughly ripped off by them. They are sold substandard education and substandard qualifications, when they could have paid less and got better of both. However, yes, a lot of them are just doing it to get a visa so they can work in this country.

    Education is really big business in this country, and a relatively successful one. Kids from abroad coming here to get further and then higher education bring in a lot of money. Unfortunately, they are often seen as a cash cow, hence totally inadequate quality checks (and I mean in higher education as well as these private colleges). As the contributor notes, this is beginning to get noticed. We are in danger of destroying our image and losing our market by just working in the assumption that we’re naturally high quality so we can charge them the earth, bring them all in regardless of their abilities apart from the ability to pay, and they’ll keep on coming.

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