Page last updated at 06:01 GMT, Sunday, 1 November 2009

Bogus student checks 'don't work'

By Phil Kemp
Donal MacIntyre show, BBC Radio 5 live

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A lengthy queue of students waiting to clear immigration at Heathrow

Immigration officers have warned bosses that new rules designed to stop bogus students entering the UK are not working, the BBC has learned.

Non-EU students are supposed to apply to registered institutions, and must prove they can support themselves.

But claims are now verified in the students' home countries, and UK staff say they have limited ability to challenge those they suspect.

The UK Border Agency insists all entrants must meet immigration rules.

Pressure

One Heathrow Airport immigration officer - speaking on condition of anonymity - told BBC Radio 5 live's Donal MacIntyre programme that UK staff were overwhelmed by the volume of student arrivals.

Anyone coming in to the UK must satisfy the border force officer that they meet the immigration rules
Jeremy Oppenheim
UK Border Agency

"Student season has extended now to virtually the whole year," he said.

"We are looking at upwards of 500 to 1,000 stuck in the hall, queues stretching for hundreds of yards down the terminal.

"On occasions we've had to shut the hall as we couldn't cope.

"That has led to planes being backed up... to not allow them to proceed into Heathrow until we could clear what we've got."

Many of these students are entirely legitimate, but he said he and his colleagues are almost powerless to challenge those whom they suspect are not.

"If someone presents a case like that to a chief immigration officer, they take a look at the size and the number of people in the hall, and they turn around and say, 'Look, because of the pressure of work, they've got a visa, get them into the country'.

"It would take two officers off the desk for hours just to present a case to send them to a detention centre."

And he believes this means people who have been denied entry to the UK on other grounds are able to enter the UK on bogus student visas.

"We have an awful lot of students who have been refused five, six, even up to nine visas to come here to this country, whether it be for working holidays or student applications," he said. "And they're now coming here."

Proof

Under the new system, colleges which offer courses to students from outside the European Economic Area must be accredited by the Home Office.

But the Heathrow immigration officer alleges that the list of approved institutions contains colleges which he and his colleagues know to have a history of awarding fake qualifications.

"It beggars belief that these places can be graded the way they are, when we know for a fact that we've proved and got signatures from the passengers that they paid for their certificates," he said.

The immigration officer told BBC Radio 5 live about a recent case of an Indian woman in her 50s who presented herself as a student enrolling on an advanced course, despite the fact that she could barely speak English.

"She was going to do an ACCA accounting course, of which when asked in Hindi what ACCA meant, she didn't have a clue," he said.

"She wasn't even able to say in her own language what the course was going to entail."

'Tightened controls'

These concerns are echoed on an internal UK Border Agency online message board, seen by the BBC.

One officer wrote: "I can no longer feel proud of my role, given that I am forced on a daily basis to allow entry to passengers who clearly hold no ability or intention to follow any course of study in the United Kingdom".

Another commented: "The introduction of the appallingly thought-out points-based system for students has, in one fell swoop, failed the UK taxpayer who expects us to do a good job in tackling illegal immigration."

The website quotes an acknowledgement from chief executive Lin Homer that the Border Agency had "not got it right" on student visas.

But Jeremy Oppenheim, head of the points-based system at the UK Border Agency, insisted that the rules were working.

"The points-based system means that only those colleges and schools who provide quality education and take responsibility for their students will be licensed to bring in foreign students," he told Radio 5 live.

"Schools and colleges are inspected by accreditation bodies and the UK Border Agency to ensure they are genuine. Before we tightened controls, around 4,000 UK institutions were bringing in international students. This currently stands at around 2,000.

"Anyone coming in to the UK must satisfy the border force officer that they meet the immigration rules and will comply with any conditions attached to their visa. If they cannot, the officer can and will refuse entry."


This report was first broadcast on the Donal MacIntyre programme on BBC Radio 5 live on Sunday 1 November 2009 at 1930 GMT. Download the free podcast. You can contact the programme by emailing donal@bbc.co.uk.



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