By Ruth Grove White
In February, Panorama screened an undercover investigation into the use of fraud within the student visa system. The programme showed how some people seeking extensions of their student visa here had been able to obtain fake supporting documents from UK branches of an approved English language test provider. It suggested that key documents needed to support student visa applications could be bought under the counter, including falsified English language proficiency certificates, offers of study from universities, bank statements and proof of past academic attainment.
Obtaining false documentation carried a high pricetag for the customer. According to the programme, the rogue company charged fees to the students which amounted to £2,800 for a full set of the required documents. They went on to make a visa application, using the fake documents, which may or may not have been granted by the Home Office. The big winners here appeared to be the agents who got paid regardless of whether or not visas were granted, with the migrants guaranteed exactly nothing for their outlay and having taken the risks associated with the black market.
This rapidly became a media story about the cynical abuse of immigration procedures by ‘bogus’ students. Immigration Minister James Brokenshire delivered a statement on the story in the House of Commons on Tuesday, listing out the Government’s action against the private colleges and English test centres concerned, and the punitive action also taken against three universities. Debate initially veered into a familiar cross-party argument about levels of migration, which party would be better able to tackle ‘abuse’, and whether this latest represented another ‘crisis’ in the immigration system.
But the truth is that we seldom hear from politicians and media commentators a proper account of just why the student migration system provides such opportunities for enterprising fraudsters who are looking for ways to make a quick buck out of some migrants. For some looking to improve their lives in the UK, the rules are now complex and demanding enough that the best way through seems to be to put themselves in the hands of a dubious Mr Fixit who, at a price, may improve the chances of achieving the desired outcome.
The discussion that needs to take place surely shouldn’t be just about who can be toughest on immigration. Of course fraudulent activity should be tackled, but the public do need to be reassured that politicians of all stripes properly understand the nature of the problem they are trying to address, rather than just point-scoring against each other.
In fact, the vast majority of international students are law-abiding but now too often find themselves dealing with a system of migration management which is not only costly to their disadvantage, but also potentially capricious in its demands and treatment of applicants. Because of this some of the least contentious and potentially most highly valued people coming here end up experiencing barriers and delays throughout their experience of the immigration system.
Tuesday’s debate saw backbench MPs from across the parties try and steer things onto more positive territory, calling for more reasonable rules and measured rhetoric relating to international students. This is important. It is surely in all politicians’ interests to cool the debate and reassure the public that international students will always be welcome in the UK.
For those concerned about the impacts of recent changes to international student rules, the APPG on Migration this month launched an inquiry into the impacts of the Post Study Work route. Click here for more details and information on how to submit evidence to the inquiry.