Oxford academic blames 'Kafkaesque' student visa system on UK PM

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A leading British historian has denounced the UK's student visa regime as 'stupid, incoherent, short-sighted, cack-handed, intrusive and counter-productive'.

Professor Timothy Garton Ash, Professor of European Studies at Oxford University, Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow at St Antony's College, Oxford, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, derides the UK's Coalition government for introducing a 'Kafkaesque, intrusive bureaucracy' where 'everyone is treated as a suspect'.

The professor says that the UK has 'best universities in Europe, as well as some good further education institutions and language schools. We have historic worldwide connections. We speak English, the global language'. All of these explain, he says, why the UK has an extremely valuable export education sector worth £10.2bn (($17bn).

International students are invaluable to the UK

He says that these students are invaluable to the UK. They create international connections and contribute to the UK's 'soft power'. Bill Clinton, former president of the US, Benazir Bhutto, former president of Pakistan, Aung San suu Kyi the Nobel Prize winning Burmese dissident and Manmohan Singh, the Indian Prime Minister, all studied at UK Universities.

The professor says that the UK's current student immigration policy is so damaging that, the country is likely to miss out on similar connections in future.

The current system is the Tier 4 student visa. To get a UK Tier 4 student visa, an applicant must be sponsored by a registered UK educational institution. He or she must also pass an English test, and provide proof of
1) having the required academic qualifications
2) having sufficient funds to support him or herself in the UK.

24% drop in Indian students in 2013/14

He says that there has been a drop of 24% in the number of Indian students applying to UK universities in the 2013/14 academic year (and a 50% drop in the 2012/13 academic year before that).

Professor Garton Ash says that he sees the 'dire effects' of this ill-thought out policy every day as a professor at Oxford University and says that the whole system is in place because of a 'careless, populist election promise' made by the Prime Minister, David Cameron.

In January 2010, the professor says, Mr Cameron promised to reduce the UK's net migration figure from 'hundreds of thousands' a year, as it was in the years leading up to 2010 under the previous Labour government, to 'tens of thousands' a year.

TV pledge

The Prime Minister made the promise when he was leader of the opposition on a BBC television programme, The Andrew Marr Show, one of the leading political interview shows on British television.

The professor says that there was nothing wrong with promising to cut immigration; all western societies must control immigration he says adding that it is 'among the top concerns of voters, in Britain as in most western democracies'. The problem arose because the prime minister promised to reduce 'net immigration', he says.

The net immigration figure is calculated by establishing the total number of people who came to live in the country over any given period and the number of people who leave the country to live elsewhere over the same period and subtracting one from the other.

Net migration figure problematic

The professor says that the net migration figure is a problematic figure on which to base immigration policy for two reasons; firstly, the Home Office cannot control the number of British people who choose to leave the country in a given year (except by making the country so horribly to live in that people choose to live elsewhere).

Secondly, he says, for the purposes of calculating the net immigration figure 'all categories of migration: asylum, family reunification, EU and non-EU, for work and for study' count as 'immigrants'.

Therefore, he says, one easy way to cut 'immigration' is to prevent international students from studying at UK universities.

Home Office is scaring international students away

And so, the UK's Home Office, the government department in charge of immigration, has set up a system of checks on international students that is scaring them away, the professor says. He says that there are numerous examples of students being treated badly.

Among them are

  • Students being tested on their English ability – and then failing the test despite being perfectly fluent in English
  • The Home Office retaining students' passports 'for months' preventing them from travelling home, even in cases of emergency
  • Students being forced to leave the UK 'the day after their courses end'.

'Acknowledge that students are different'

He says that the UK should 'acknowledge that students are different' and alter the system for recording and counting immigrants so that 'student numbers would then be treated separately'. This, he says, would prevent the Home Office from causing such damage to the UK's education sector.

The professor says that the UK must update its immigration system in sensible ways. It should introduce exit checks to count the people leaving the country, which it does not currently do. It should also properly count people coming into the country.

It currently relies on the International Passenger Survey, which is based on interviews with a small sample of passengers at British ports and airports.

'The student question must be addressed on its own merits'

He acknowledges that some students are probably overstaying their visas but says that 'the student question must be addressed on its own merits' not confused with 'immigration' in general.

He acknowledges that 'hosting foreign students has a cost' but says that the UK's universities are 'a vital part of Britain's soft power, along with film, literature, music, sport and the BBC' and argues that they are a national asset.

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