Page last updated at 05:59 GMT, Sunday, 22 November 2009

Student visa numbers soar after new rules take effect

By Helen Grady
Donal MacIntyre show, BBC Radio 5 live

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One immigration officer filmed lengthy immigration queues at Heathrow

The number of students entering the UK from India and Bangladesh has risen sharply since a new visa system began, the BBC has learned.

The UK Border Agency had said it believed the total number of students was "roughly the same" as last year.

But a Freedom of Information request revealed the numbers entering from those countries, thought to be hotspots for bogus students, has tripled.

The Home Office insists that the figures do not reflect a global trend.

'Raise the bar'

The new points-based immigration system was introduced last year. It was designed to be tougher and more selective than the old one.

The then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith promised that the new system would "raise the bar" and lead to "fewer migrants coming to the UK from outside the EU".

But earlier this month, immigration officers told BBC Radio 5 live they feared more bogus students are arriving in the UK under the new system, partly because of the large volume of arrivals which must be processed.

Officers said a significant number of those arriving on student visas had previously been denied entry to the UK, and they suspected that many had come here to work and not study.

One Heathrow-based whistleblower told the Donal MacIntyre programme that many so-called students could not speak English, and knew nothing about the courses they claimed to be studying.

He said many of these students came from the Indian subcontinent.

Sharp increase

Responding to the immigration officers' concerns, Jeremy Oppenheim, who runs the points-based system at the UK Border Agency, said that the number of students coming into the UK this year was "roughly the same as last year".

But figures subsequently obtained by the BBC under the Freedom of Information Act show there has been a sharp increase in the number of student visas granted in India and Bangladesh - two of the biggest centres for non-EU student visa applications.

Between June and August 2008 (before the new system for students came into force), the British High Commissions in Mumbai, New Delhi and Dhaka issued 6,771 student visas.

During the same period this year (under the new points-based immigration system), the three offices issued 19,950 visas.

The number of student visa applications rejected also rose from 3,997 to 6,261.

'Flexible'

The government says it has cracked down on bogus colleges, and that the number of institutions able to bring students into the UK from outside the European Union has been halved since the introduction of the new points-based immigration system.

In a statement, Mr Oppenheim told the Donal MacIntyre programme: "The UK Border Agency has 74 visa-issuing posts worldwide, so three cities should not be taken as representative of a global trend.

"The points-based system is designed to be flexible," he added.

"It enables us to regularly check and monitor all student applications and colleges to ensure that they meet the required standards, and take action where necessary."

Listen to the Donal MacIntyre programme on BBC Radio 5 live on Sundays at 1930 GMT or download the free podcast. You can contact the programme by emailing donal@bbc.co.uk.



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