Up to 50,000 migrants may have used flaws in the student visa system to come to the UK for work in its first year, the country's public spending watchdog said today.
MPs called for the troubled UK Border Agency (UKBA) to “get a grip and fix the way it deals with student visas” after saying the report exposed one of the most shocking examples of poor management leading to abuse.
The points-based system was set up without key controls, potentially leading to tens of thousands of migrants entering the UK without any checks as to whether they were attending a college, the National Audit Office (NAO) said.
The critical report added that the under-fire UKBA also does little to ensure that foreign students leave the UK when requests to extend their stay are refused.
Addresses for almost a fifth of more than 800 migrants wanted by the agency were found in just one week at a cost of £3,000 (€3,600) by a contractor hired by the watchdog.
Margaret Hodge, chairwoman of the Commons Committee of Public Accounts (PAC), said: “This is one of the most shocking reports of poor management leading to abuse that I have seen.
“It is completely unacceptable that the programme was launched without key controls being in place.
“The agency has done little to stop students overstaying their visas. And it is extremely worrying that the agency does not know how many people with expired student visas are still in the country.”
She went on: “It should be a real wake-up call to the agency that the NAO were able to track down 147 migrants who are probably here illegally within a week at a cost of only £3,000.
“The agency needs to get a grip and fix the way it deals with student visas.”
Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said the flaws in the student visa system for people applying from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) were “both predictable and avoidable”.
The agency withdrew entry clearance officers’ powers to test applicants’ intentions before it had controls in place over sponsor colleges, the report said.
Between 40,000 and 50,000 people may have entered the UK to work rather than to study in the year after the new system was introduced in 2009, based on college enrolment rates and changes in patterns of applications and refusals, the watchdog said.
It added: “The agency has taken insufficient action to remedy the consequences of these control failures and has not dealt efficiently and effectively with overstayers and students working in breach of the rules.”
But the Home Office disputed the figures, saying they were not robustly-based.
Mr Morse went on: “The agency regards students who do not comply with their visa conditions as a low priority compared with illegal immigrants and failed asylum seekers, and is slow to take action to deal with such students.
“Action planned by the agency to ensure that those with no right to remain in the UK are identified and required to leave must now be pursued more vigorously.”
The watchdog’s report also showed 62,000 notifications were sent by sponsors to tell the UKBA that students were not attending college between February 2010 and October 2011 but just 2,700 students and student overstayers have been removed since 1 April 2009. A total of 141 sponsor licences have also been revoked.
Overall, some 292,000 visas and 110,000 visa extensions have been granted to students and their dependants each year since the new system was brought in, with a net cost of £19m from £244m in fees against £263m in processing costs.
Sir Andrew Green, chairman of the Migration Watch UK campaign group, said the watchdog had “lifted the lid on a scandal to which we have been pointing for several years”.
“This report is a shocking indictment of the student visa system introduced by the previous government,” he said.
“The NAO estimate of 40,000 bogus students in year one confirms all that we have said about the system being wide open to abuse.
“We renew our call on the coalition Government to re-introduce interviews to weed out bogus applicants before they come to Britain as the Americans and Australians are already doing.”
Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, agreed with the watchdog’s recommendation that the UKBA should work more collaboratively with sponsors.
Nicola Dandridge, the group’s chief executive, added that progress has been made on clamping down on abuse of the student visa system since its first year and said much of the abuse did not involve university-level students.
“We must continue to be sensitive to the language we use around immigration and international students,” she said.
Immigration Minister Damian Green said: “This Government has introduced radical reforms in order to stamp out abuse and restore order to the uncontrolled student visa system we inherited.
“These include tough new rules on English language, working rights and dependants to ensure only legitimate students come to the UK. New restrictions on post-study work mean that all but the very best will return home after study.”
Keith Vaz, chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, said the findings were “yet another example of incompetence at the very heart of the UK Border Agency”.
The committee “has continually warned the agency of the dangers posed by bogus colleges and students”, he said.
“Despite this caution, the agency has failed to implement tier four measures correctly.
“Only recently the committee was informed that they did not recognise the term bogus college and that they made announced visits to 50% of colleges inspected.
“This highlights a complete absence of priority towards detecting and removing those in breach of their visas rules.
“I hope the decision to detach the UK Border Force from the UK Border Agency will now allow it to focus on its main task of ensuring migrants who come to Britain are genuine.”