The Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:
"It is extraordinary that the UK Border Agency introduced its new points based system for students before proper controls were in place to replace the old ones.
The result of the Agency's poorly planned and ill-thought out course of action was chaos: an immediate high level of abuse of the new system and a surge in the number of student visas. In 2009 the number of migrants who abused the student route to work rather than study went up by as much as 40,000 to 50,000.
Since then, the Agency has been playing catch-up, continually adjusting the rules and procedures in order to try and tackle abuse.
The result has been to create a huge amount of bureaucracy for universities and an increasingly complex system for students to navigate. A bad situation has been made worse by the poor customer support being provided by the Agency.
Genuine international students make a valuable contribution to life in the UK and to our economy, and the Agency must reduce the burden on those students and institutions who pose a low risk.
Despite the surge in the number of people abusing the student route, the Agency has not done enough to remove those who are here illegally. Even where it has been told by colleges that so-called students are not studying, it has been unacceptably slow to act.
The Agency must take urgent enforcement action to remove them. This would also send a message to other would-be migrants that the student route is not an easy option for those with no intention of studying."
Margaret Hodge was speaking as the Committee published its 7th Report of this Session which, on the basis of evidence from the Home Office and the UK Border Agency, examined the implementation and management of the student route of the Points Based System for immigration.
International students contribute significant economic benefit to the UK and provide an important income stream for UK education institutions. There is tension though between the twin goals of ensuring a flow of high quality students into the UK and ensuring and maintaining public confidence in the immigration system. The Home Office, through the UK Border Agency (the Agency), introduced Tier 4 of the Points Based System for student immigration in March 2009 to control the entry of students from outside the European Economic Area who come to the UK to study. Under Tier 4, students have to be sponsored by an educational institution (sponsor) licensed by the Agency and responsibility for testing whether applicants are likely to comply with their visa conditions has been transferred from the Agency to the sponsor.
The Agency implemented the new system before proper controls were in place. It removed the controls it relied on under the old system; primarily, intentions testing and spot check interviews by entry clearance officers, before it had replaced them with new checks and controls. The Agency did not make their secure electronic system, which demonstrated that a student had been sponsored by a licensed sponsor, mandatory until February 2010. In the meantime, the Agency had to rely on letters from sponsors, which were easily forged. The Agency had also only visited 30 % of the education institutions it had licensed as sponsors by March 2009 when it launched Tier 4. The controls gap enabled a surge in student visas and, in 2009 an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 additional migrants came to the UK to work rather than study.
After a poorly planned and ill-thought out implementation of Tier 4 in 2009, the Agency has had to spend the subsequent three years amending rules and procedures in an effort to reduce abuse. This constant change has made it very difficult and costly for students and education institutions to keep up to date with the increasingly complex set of rules and guidance that has emerged. The supporting advice and guidance offered by the Agency has not been good enough. Furthermore, the Agency has not introduced ways to ease the burden on those students and sponsors that can safely be considered low risk, potentially damaging the benefits to the UK education sector.
The Agency has not taken sufficient action to deal with migrants abusing the student route. The Agency took the decision to focus on controls over entry to the UK. It also decided to prioritise removing individuals proven to be 'high harm', for example foreign national prisoners. However, it should not be ignoring such large numbers of people living and working in the UK illegally. Its approach also failed to capitalise on the benefit of high profile removals as a disincentive to abuse of the route. The Agency has only belatedly been removing the visas from those it knew were not studying. The Agency has not been following up on those whose visas it knew had expired.
The Government expected that clamping down on abuse of student visas would play a part in reducing net migration. However the measurement of net migration is still based on inaccurate International Passenger Survey data. The e-Borders system for counting all migrants in and out of the UK will not be in place fully until 2015 at the earliest. We note that currently net migration figures include students, who generally stay in the UK for less than 5 years. We suggest that it would be more informative to also report net migration statistics excluding students, as a number of other comparable countries do.