It was announced by the UK Border Agency in July 2012 that following a 'successful pilot' carried out last year, a targeted interview system for students was being introduced, which would concentrate on high-risk applicants.
If you are a student, you may be interviewed and asked a number of questions about your immigration and education history, study and post-study plans, and financial circumstances. The UKBA expects to interview up to 14,000 students in the next 12 months. They will refuse to issue a visa if they are not satisfied that you are a genuine student. Furthermore, they may also refuse you if you simply fail to turn up for the interview and fail to give a reasonable explanation.
This seems to open doors to double standards. Students must first demonstrate their language abilities by passing the English language test, which was so rigorously defended by the then immigration minister, Mr. Damian Green, back in 2010: "Secure English language testing will ensure that we have independent evidence that all education institutions are ensuring their students are capable of following a course delivered in English".
They will then be interviewed, where they will be 'grilled' about their education history, study in the United Kingdom, financial circumstances and plans for after the completion of their education. Current English language tests last around one day and students are tested by a examiner trained in all the key skills areas: speaking, writing, listening and reading. In most cases, students have to attend expensive English language courses in order to prepare for the test.
What is the UKBA actually going to test? All the skills a student requires in higher education? Or will they simply ask a couple of questions and refuse them on that basis? If it is the latter, what is the purpose of setting an English language test as a visa criterion? Even if students do pass the test, which costs an average of £100 (not including the English language course costs), they may still be refused.
According to Mike Milanovic, chief executive of Cambridge ESOL, speaking is possibly the most challenging skill to assess. Even when a very experienced language teacher carries it out, you still need to provide them with specialist training and very detailed instructions. According to Milanovic, "you also need an extensive quality management system to back this up. Otherwise, it's almost impossible to deliver a fair, reliable assessment".
It is also noteworthy that a student who appears to be poor at speaking and listening but excels at reading and writing is far more likely to be successful at university than the reverse. Therefore, the introduction of student interviews could call into question the UKBA's confidence in English language tests.
Damian Green, who is also the former shadow minister, has rejected the universities' argument that students are not migrants and should be excluded from the immigration cap as "fiddling the figures". The Sunday Times quoted a source at 10 Downing Street as saying: "The prime minister understands these arguments and is definitely considering a change of policy". The coalition needs to accept that overseas students could well turn their backs on Britain.
The Russell Group says overseas student numbers must be maintained because educating non-EU citizens is "a major UK export industry"that brings in £2.5bn a year in fees alone. As Russell Group Director General, Dr. Wendy Piatt, rightly said: "As ministers crack down on abuse of the system, they must be careful about the messages they send to the world's best and brightest students". It comes as a surprise that the government has introduced another costly scheme, which ultimately fails to deal with the problem at hand.
Dr. Rahul Choudaha, director of research at World Education Services, a New York-based higher education monitoring service, warns that assessing language will not stop abuses: "Interviews may deter fraudulent applicants to some extent; however, interviews are not only resource intensive but also highly subjective".
In the light of the recent revocation of London Metropolitan University's licence to teach overseas students, the UKBA must tread carefully now to avoid a crisis in British education.