UK introduces biometric ID cards for overseas students

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Under tougher United Kingdom immigration rules designed to tackle bogus colleges, overseas students coming to the UK will need biometric identity cards. Fingerprinting of overseas students will begin this month with university chiefs warning that it needs to be a simple and efficient process. The first students having to give fingerprints will be those applying for visa extensions from 25 November under Tier 4 of the UK's new five-tier points based system.

The Home Office's tightening of border controls, set out earlier this year, will include a requirement to "...check and record the fingerprints of any applicants applying for a student visa...All students allowed to come here will need to obtain a biometric identity card, so we know exactly who they are and what they are entitled to do."

Overseas students, classified as those from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) and Switzerland, have become an important source of income for UK universities as they pay higher tuition fees than UK and EEA/Swiss students, collectively contributing some £2.5bn per year. Indeed, according to the Quality Assurance Agency, the university watchdog, some universities are now financially dependent on overseas students.

Concerns that the introduction of biometric identity cards might deter potential applicants have been highlighted by Universities UK, the higher education representative body, which has warned of potentially inadequate biometric data facilities, with only 6 centres in the UK. This will inevitably lead to inconvenience with long journeys for some students and long queuing times in the absence of a booking system.

"Despite repeated requests for information on whether there will be a booking process we have so far not received this information," said Universities UK chief executive Diana Warwick.

The changing rules for overseas students are part of a "clamp down on bogus students", announced by the Home Office, which will see colleges having to hold a licence from the UK Border Agency. There have been widespread concerns that bogus colleges have been providing a means of falsely entering the country by allowing people to claim student visas despite having no real intention of pursuing a course of academic study.

Almost 300 bogus colleges have been exposed in the last three years and the Home Office expects 50,000 to 60,000 students to be affected in the first phase of implementation between now and March, 2009.

Last year, there were 313,000 applications for student visas, of which 217,000 were actually issued.

From next March, overseas students will need to be sponsored by a college or university holding a licence from the UK Border Agency and, from next autumn, there will be a further tightening of the rules, in which universities and colleges will use a "sponsor management system" to inform the UK Border Agency if students are failing to attend courses.

Phil Woolas, the recently appointed Border and Immigration Minister commented "This new route for students will ensure we know exactly who is coming here to study and…will stamp out bogus colleges which facilitate the lawbreakers"But he also noted that "international students contribute £2.5bn to the UK economy in tuition fees alone". According to the Home Office, overseas students contribute as much as £8.5bn to the wider economy.