Don’t close the door to Asian students

Demonising Pakistani students because a handful have been arrested as terror suspects is mad, bad and dangerous.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Politics

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When the UK government recently suggested that universities have a responsibility to monitor extremist groups and individuals on campus, many academics reacted angrily. They warned that this would demonise Muslim students and they objected to being asked, effectively, to spy on their students.

Yet when it emerged that 10 of 12 people arrested last week on suspicion of plotting terrorist attacks in the north west of England were Pakistani students, the government’s academic spying proposal started to be looked on more favourably. There have been widespread calls for heavily reducing the number of student visas granted to Pakistanis. This, some say, is the only way to eliminate ‘the terrorist threat’ emanating from Pakistan.

Last Wednesday, after a month of covert surveillance carried out by officers from the North West Counter-Terrorism Unit, police arrested 12 men suspected of planning an attack. Officers searched Liverpool for an alleged ‘bomb factory’ where, they believe, explosive materials are being stored. Operation Pathway, the codename for the raids, had been rushed forward after Bob Quick, Britain’s most senior counterterrorism officer, was photographed carrying secret documents with details of the operation.

As it emerged that at least 10 of the arrested men were Pakistanis who entered Britain on student visas, immigration controls have come under renewed scrutiny. Britain’s student visa system is said to be too lax, providing a loophole through which ‘bogus’ students might bypass proper scrutiny by immigration officials.

It is true that student visas offer a potential route in to Britain for non-EU nationals who have few other legal ways of coming here. Students make up the fourth tier of the five-tier points-based immigration system for migrant students and workers which was launched last year. But is it really that easy to fulfil the many conditions and entry-clearance checks tied to this fourth tier?

Non EU-nationals wishing to obtain a student visa must comply with a string of requirements. For example, they must prove that they have already been offered a place at an educational institution, which must also be willing to act as their sponsor. A sponsor must vouch for the student’s abilities and has various reporting duties throughout the student’s stay in the UK. A migrant student wishing to change educational institutions or to obtain a visa extension is required to lodge a further immigration application. It costs between £357 and £565 to apply for a student visa and to obtain the required biometric immigration document. Student visa applicants must also prove that they have enough money to cover course fees for their first year in Britain and living costs for up to nine months. For a great majority of the world’s population, all of this is tough work indeed.

Pakistan has a population of 165,900,000 (1). Every year 10,000 foreign student visas are granted in Pakistan, including many for British universities. But up to 20 times as many applicants are rejected (2). Between 2004 and 2008, about 42,000 Pakistani students were admitted to the UK (3).

Some are now implying that Britain has allowed 42,000 potential terrorists to come here to build bomb factories and spread violence and hatred, all the while pretending to be brushing up their English at bogus language colleges or studying subjects ranging from physics to international relations. According to a professor of war studies at the prestigious King’s College London, ‘42,000 students from Pakistan in four years may be too many for anyone to check properly’. Though he has many ‘valued Pakistani students’, he now feels that, in light of last week’s arrests, greater restrictions and reduced numbers may be necessary (4).

It requires a great deal of prejudice and a giant leap of imagination to justify shutting the door on thousands of Pakistanis wishing to study in Britain just because 10 individuals are suspected of being involved in a terrorist plot. That adds up to one in every 4,200, or 0.024 per cent, of Pakistanis admitted on student visas in the past four years being arrested as a suspected terrorist.

And why stop at shutting the door on Pakistani students? In 2007, the Higher Education Statistics Agency estimated that there were 330,000 non-EU overseas students studying at UK universities – that’s one in seven British-based students. There had been a particular increase in students from India, Germany, France and Nigeria (5). Following the logic of those now arguing for heavily reducing the number of Pakistani students coming to Britain, these countries, too, could harbour potential terrorists wrangling their way into the UK as bogus students.

The calls for closer scrutiny of and greater restrictions on Pakistani students look like history repeating itself. In the summer of 2007, there were widespread calls for stricter vetting procedures for foreign medical staff in the UK following failed terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow. Eight of the men initially suspected of carrying out the attacks were medical professionals and students. Just as some commentators are now saying that educational institutions are offering an all too easy route into Britain for terrorists, so it was suggested then that the British National Health Service offers an open door to terrorism (6).

When full details behind the 2007 events were established at the end of last year, it turned out that just one NHS employee was found guilty of conspiracy to murder by planning car bomb attacks. This ought to stand as a lesson to avoid jumping to conclusions about individuals suspected of crimes, and to avoid letting the suspected actions of a tiny minority justify clampdowns on free movement for thousands.

Tightening restrictions on the arrival of foreign students in Britain will do nothing to stop terrorism. But it could lead to even more inhumane immigration policies and further deny educational opportunities and freedom of movement to people around the world. It is also likely to poison the relations between academic staff and students if it leads to the legitimisation of authoritarian initiatives such as the government’s recommendation that academic staff snoop on their students. In the long term, all of this would harm the reputation of British academia as a dynamic international research arena.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

(1) 2008 World Population Data Sheet, Population reference Bureau (PDF)

(2) Revealed: Pakistan’s ‘cottage industry’ in forged documents sought by terrorists, Telegraph, 11 April 2009

(3) Student visa loophole sparks diplomatic row, Telegraph, 11 April 2009

(4) 42,000 in four years: it’s too many to check, The Times, 11 April 2009

(5) Overseas students ‘one in seven’, BBC News, 27 March 2009

(6) NHS and an open door to terrorism, Daily Mail, 4 July 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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