Page last updated at 11:33 GMT, Monday, 10 November 2008

Academics attack 'spying' plan

Overseas students will have to be fingerprinted

University lecturers are warning that they do not want to become "immigration officers" in the enforcement of tougher rules on student visas.

From next year, universities will be expected to monitor whether overseas students are really attending courses.

Sally Hunt, head of the University and College Union, says staff do not want to enter the "spying game".

Overseas students will have to be fingerprinted, in a drive to tackle the problem of bogus colleges.

The clampdown on student visas will mean tighter monitoring for the more than 200,000 overseas students who receive visas each year.


"We have grave concerns that new rules on monitoring foreign students have been pulled together without any consultation with the people who would be tasked with their implementation," says Ms Hunt - who is one of 200 signatories to a letter protesting against the plans.

"We do not believe it is appropriate or effective to task colleges and universities with the policing of immigration," she says.

The union has previously opposed suggestions that university staff should identify students who might pose a security threat.

"As we said then, if people wanted to go into the monitoring or spying game they would have become spooks," she says.

The letter, sent to the Guardian newspaper, says: "This police-like surveillance is not the function of universities, and alters the educational relationship between students and their teachers in a very harmful manner."

The academics are protesting against Home Office plans to stop the misuse of the student visa system - which will require universities to identify overseas students who are not following courses.

From next autumn, universities will have to introduce a "sponsor management system", to inform the UK Border Agency if overseas students have dropped out.

The tightening of border controls aim to stop people entering the country on student visas with no real intention of studying.

This can either be through bogus colleges, which do not really provide the courses they claim to offer, or by students failing to attend the courses for which they have registered.

Almost 300 bogus colleges have been uncovered in the past three years.

The new regulations will mean that overseas students - classified as those from outside the European Union - will have to give their fingerprints for a biometric identity card.

The first students having to give fingerprints will be those applying for visa extensions from November 25 - initially affecting 50,000 to 60,000 students.

Overseas students - classified as those from outside the European Union - have become an important source of income for universities, particularly as they pay higher fees than UK students.

The university watchdog, the Quality Assurance Agency, said earlier this year that some universities were now financially dependent on overseas students.

There have been concerns that the introduction of tighter immigration controls, including compulsory fingerprinting, might deter potential applicants.

The higher education representative body, Universities UK, has warned that there are only six centres around the UK where biometric information can be collected - which will mean long journeys for some students.

There are also concerns about queuing times - and an absence of any way of booking an appointment.

Last year, there were 313,000 applications for student visas - of which 217,000 were issued. Existing students won't be affected unless they want to extend their visa.

Send your comments on this story, using the form below.

Our University is currently consulting on whether to monitor the attendance of all students in order to avoid discrimination against international students. From what I have seen, this is confusing everybody and is going to be very expensive (and insecure). As a British student I see this as a further invasion of my privacy with no real benefit. They even went on to say that the data would not be used against students, but might be used to 'monitor' students progress. (Attendance is not a measure of performance.) One simple situation, severely overcomplicated. Overseas students need to be treated differently (police registration, etc), so why all this 'discrimination' fuss?
Tony, Lancaster

These lecturers who don't want to keep a record are a disgrace. They are afraid that fee income from overseas, genuine or false, will reduce. There is obviously a problem with some students disappearing - the lecturers need to be fair to the UK and probably don't want it to be known that some of their students aren't bothered or have scarpered. It is not in the interest of the lecturers for this to be sorted out.
Steve Simpson, london

In a typical university, the overseas fees are around 12-20K per year. I doubt very few people will come here, pay that in order to work illegally in your local farm or chippy!
Patrick, Imperial college, London

Having worked in the registry of a university in London, including dealing with international students, I can only say that colleges and universities have absolutely no excuse not to cooperate in such schemes. Indeed, they have a clear moral obligation. Immense profits are often made by the universities from students from outside the EU who pay hugely inflated fees while receiving relatively little support, encouragement or help with integrating into British society once they have signed their contract and paid their money.

If universities wish to continue to use international students as the "cash cow" that they have done so in recent years, they must accept obligations that should be attached to bringing often-ill prepared individuals into the country.
Justin, London

Since when did a teacher/lecturer taking a register of attendance become 'spying'? That's just silly. Don't lecturers currently keep a register of attendance of all students anyway? If not, they should be. If the taxpayer is paying the University money for each student, it seems only prudent to take a register of attendance to ensure that student actually exists. That's just good stewardship of funds. I don't see what the fuss is about.
David Wilson, London, UK

Yeah. ..welcome to our country. ...please study here and be charged 3 times the amount what UK students are charged. ..and sorry. ..but we don't trust you either. It's hardly assisting with widening participation is it?
John, Preston

UCU's rsponse is typically myopic, self-serving and off-target. I run a university international office and can confirm that no one is being asked to take registers. Students are adults and are treated as such. Universities rightly are obliged to report on overseas student no-shows, exclusions and drop-outs, however. The new UKBA advice is that we should now set up internal procedures which will highlight cases of non-attending international students. This will be done with reference to discreet electronic triggers e.g. extended period without logging on to the university's computer and email systems; failure to swipe library cards during a term; failure to pay fee instalments as they fall due; non-submission of termly assignments, failure to pay student housing fees and, of course, missed examinations. Only then would be make further enquiries with course tutors as to whether student X had disappeared.

And as to the knee-jerk objection of many posters to international students paying higher fees than home students; the parental taxes of home students have already paid to build the current HE infrastructure and to fund the per capita HEFCE grant which each institution receives from the government annually. So it's entirely reasonable that home students should pay less than internationals are charged.
Gaudeamus, Hampshire

Universities accept public money, and in turn they have to assist the authorities in this in the wider public interest whether they like it or not. The fact remains that students are an impressionable group and this is one way Al-Qaeda and similar terrorist organisations can infiltrate into our copuntry.
Kevin , Leicester

Judging on the inability of my daughter's university to record her attendance at lectures, I doubt the efficacy of this proposal
Stephen, Andover

The University and College Union's argument as presented seems specious. Firstly, any educational establishment has the responsibility to monitor its students' progress. It should as a matter of good practice know whether a student is attending their courses. Secondly, these establishments are encouraging overseas students to come to the UK and are profiting from the money they pay. If this makes them a conduit for illegal immigration, then it is their responsibility to assist the authorities in tackling this problem, just as it is the banks' responsibility to attempt to prevent accounts being used for money laundering.
Trevor, Guildford

Unlike most of the people here I know that universities are not schools. You can, and people do, not turn up to a single lecture and get a first because most of the study, and the most important study, is done in a students own time. They already know when a student vanishes though - because exams and essays are not optional. The problem here is that the government wants to know instantly when a student vanishes - the idea that it might take a a month or so if they were to simply use the current data is not politically acceptable, so they want to waste money and curb freedoms with another hair brained scheme. The introduction of a single form for uni administrators to post to immigration when a student disappears would of solved this problem, at minimal cost and without undermining the free form nature of uni, or indeed the fundamental freedoms of students. That wouldn't of required a new law however.
Tom, York

I have seen this scheme. It is ill thought out and ill fitted to the universities real teaching structure. Attendance registers are not taken - how do you take a register for a PhD student on fieldwork in the Amazon basin? Do please let me know. It is the UKBA's PURPOSE and RESPONSIBILITY to monitor immigration in this country, not the universities. Turning the universities into spies for the government flies in the face of not only the philosophy of freedom in education but of real, everyday civil liberties. Arguing that they use public funds and therefore 'owe' the government, or are part of it in such a way that institutions can be dictated to in such a fashion, does not follow. They should have been given the right to properly protest this scheme.

This system is creating a two-tiered society - and not just in education but at all levels of society, given that this 'legislation' is being applied to all visa applications - where being 'other' means that your rights are fewer, you are monitored, where your otherness justifies an assumption of criminality and suspicion of your person.
Jo, London

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