Large numbers of bogus students are slipping in to Britain because the new points-based immigration regime is "significantly weaker" than its predecessor, a leaked Home Office memo has warned.
By Tom Whitehead, Home Affairs Editor
Published: 6:20AM GMT 11 Jan 2010
The damaging note, from an immigration intelligence unit, warns the student visa system is allowing "large numbers" of illegal immigrants to arrive and officers at ports of entry are powerless to stop them, The Daily Telegraph can disclose.
Bogus students who were refused or would have been rejected under the old regime are being waved through even though border control staff are convinced they are not genuine.
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It makes a mockery of the Government's claim that the points-based system has tightened the student visa route and will renew concerns that terrorists, extremists and criminals can easily exploit it to gain entry to Britain.
David Cameron, the Conservative leader, yesterday warned that many immigrants were arriving in the United Kingdom claiming to be students while actually seeking work. He proposed a cap on immigration.
He told the BBC's Andrew Marr show: "We should be attracting the best students from India and China and Brazil, the countries of the future, to come and study here, then to go home, but to want to do business with Britain for their lives.
"Instead our system currently seems a lot of people come, do endless courses and are actually working here rather than being a proper student visa situation."
The memo to the Home Office says education institutions, who now have to sponsor foreign students, are effectively deciding who is allowed to enter, rather than immigration entry clearance officers.
It reveals that concerns over the new system were raised by officials in 2008, before it was even implemented.
A group of Pakistani men suspected of a plot to blow up shopping centres in Manchester last Easter had arrived here on student visas. They were later released without charge but made subject to deportation on national security grounds.
In November the security services warned al-Qaeda terrorists could have arrived here by posing as students or legitimate visitors.
Even the entry system for genuine students has been under the spotlight after it emerged Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up a plane carrying 280 passengers over Detroit on Christmas Day, had legitimately attended University College London between 2005 and 2008.
The memo, sent from the Heathrow Intelligence Unit to senior Home Office officials, focuses on abuse of the so-called Tier 4 of the points-based system, which is the student visa route and was introduced in March last year.
It warns the system is "less robust" than its predecessor and has "presented a window of opportunity to both individuals and organisations seeking easy access to the UK".
It said: "The current discourse among port officers is that the system is significantly weaker and allows a large number of bogus students to gain entry to the United Kingdom."
It adds: "Port officers are required to assess students in a completely different way to the old regime.
"It is largely perceived across Border Force that PBSs (Points based system) is providing entry clearances to students that would have been refused in the previous system,
"One officer reported that a recent Bolivian passenger was refused a student visa under the old policy but was successful under the new with no differences between the two applications."
Almost 1.5 million student visas have been handed out in the last eight years, including 236,470 in 2008/09.
Under the PBS, universities, colleges and other education institutions must be approved by the Home Office to act as sponsors to bring in foreign students and it is they who are then responsible for assessing whether someone is eligible to enter.
The memo warns unless the entry clearance officer can show or prove documents are false they cannot refuse entry – and such verification is "largely impossible given the number of documents and they will generally be accepted at face value".
It describes the new system as a "tick box" process that "removed the ability of the entry clearance officer to assess credibility of either the college or the applicant".
It says the fact that the assessment of whether student will follow a course rests with the college has "obvious risks with less genuine colleges".
It adds: "The discourse remains that many students still considered bogus (who would not have attained a visa and/or been refused under previous student rules) are being granted leave to enter due to the lack of decision making flexibility afforded by the Tier 4 rules".
The memo quotes one case where 33 students were "reluctantly allowed" in to attend a named college because "it was decided in each case that PBS did not afford the means to refuse entry despite severe misgivings as to the bona fide nature of the alleged student".
The memo, dated July 2009, warned of "many more students being reluctantly granted entry even though they are suspected of being mala fide" over the rest of that year.
It says the concerns are "not unique" to Heathrow and warns of a "high" level of controversy because "press interest remains high and ministers have publicly stated that the PBS system has been a success in tightening the student requirements".
Chris Grayling, the shadow home secretary, who promised a crackdown on student visas at the weekend, said: "I find it quite extraordinary to be in a position that people are being allowed in to the country that they know to be bogus. This is a sign if a system that is rotten to the core and desperately needs to be changed."
Sir Andrew Green, chairman of Migrationwatch, said: "This damning report confirms that the new points based system for students is turning in to a disaster.
"The Government claim to have eliminated about 1,000 bogus colleges but they have destroyed the front line defence for all the other colleges.
"This is not a gap it is a chasm in the immigration system."
Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: “It is an appalling comment on the new system that the Home Office’s own immigration officials believe it to be more open to abuse than its predecessor.
“The new student visas are achieving the worst of all worlds as border officials think it is too soft while genuine colleges complain it is tying them in red tape and putting off respectable foreign students."
Phil Woolas, the immigration minister, said: "The Points Based System is a more transparent, objective and robust application system than what went before. At every stage of its implementation we have reviewed its impact strengthening it when needed.
"When concerns have been raised, including by our own staff, we have acted: reminding front-line officers of their existing powers to refuse entry at the border, suspending applications from regions in China and revoking 14 licenses from bogus colleges since July 2009.
"The Prime Minister will soon receive our review into Tier Four and we have agreed that changes to the system will be made to make it even more robust."
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