Attempts by ‘rogue’ recruitment agents to circumvent UK visa rules by lending money to students at very short notice are ‘common’ and it is an area which needs ‘considerable attention’ from the from the immigration authorities, according to a former university minister. .
Lord Johnson of Marylebone also called on the UK to have a “willingness to learn from other countries” about managing the risks of such practices so they do not undermine the UK’s international education strategy.
A recent report, in News from the PIEsuggested there were agents in Nigeria openly offering to provide students with funds to meet UK visa rules by proving they had enough money for a course and living expenses.
Although there is no evidence that such activity has led to widespread abuse of the system, such practices could raise concerns, especially as the latest statistics show that the granting of visas has reached a record level last year.
Lord Johnson said the recent ‘welcome growth’ in the number of international students needed to ‘go hand in hand with measures to maintain confidence in the integrity of our visa system’.
“It is essential if we are to avoid a policy seesaw in reaction to evidence of fraud and abuse,” he said. Times Higher Education.
Lord Johnson added that “the fraudulent practices of rogue agents providing funds at very short notice in order to help students demonstrate that they have the funds to support themselves in the UK, and possibly retrain the same funding to support multiple students, are commonplace. ”.
“This is an area that requires considerable attention from UKVI [UK Visas and Immigration] and also a willingness to learn from other countries that have put in place mechanisms to manage this risk.
In particular, he urged the UK to consider adopting a model similar to that used in Canada, where visas can be expedited if students purchase a “guaranteed investment certificate” from a reputable bank to prove that they have a certain level of funds. Such a system was featured as a key measure to combat fraud in a recent report led by Lord Johnson on boosting recruitment in India.
“A scheme like this would significantly reduce the risks involved in recruiting international students to the UK,” said Lord Johnson.
The latest UK immigration figures also showed a tripling of visas issued to dependents of students. Although this is a category that still represents only a small share – around 10% – of all study visas, there is concern that an increasing number of visas will be seized by opponents of student migration.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said the UK should “of course welcome [dependants] with open arms when their presence respects the rules.
“But it’s also one of many areas where constant vigilance is needed to make sure the rules are fair and enforced fairly and where we also need to make sure people don’t abuse them.”
Anne-Marie Graham, chief executive of the UK Council for International Student Affairs, said that although the country is in a “positive place for international recruitment”, the sector was “very aware that immigration policy can change quickly” and had therefore “already taken steps to minimize the risk of future changes”.
This involved working “closely with UKVI and other government departments to share data and learn from trends”.
A Home Office spokeswoman said “robust measures” were in place “to prevent abuse of the student visa application process, including training for our decision makers on how to detect forgeries and the possibility of ‘interview candidates to help challenge their credibility and intentions’.