UK to review PhD visa vetting

Decision raises concerns the government will strengthen restrictions on foreign-born students

By | August 11, 2006

The UK government is reviewing its system for vetting foreign PhD students in high-risk subject areas, sparking concerns that draconian changes could harm universities' competitiveness. Under the current scheme, which is voluntary, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) asks universities to request government approval of all postgraduate research applications from students in one of 10 "countries of concern" wanting to work in a high-risk area, such as microbiology. However, in practice, adherence to the scheme is very patchy, and some universities -- including Cambridge University -- have opted out of it completely. This, according to the government, can give non-compliers a competitive advantage. The scheme was established in 1994 to prevent technology and skills that could be used to develop weapons of mass destruction being transferred overseas. It was under review last year, but the process was interrupted when bombs exploded in London last July. An FCO spokesperson told The Scientist the agency is working on new options to tighten up the system, and no firm decision has yet been made about the right way forward. One likely option would be to make the scheme compulsory, something called for in 2003 by the Members of Parliament on the House of Commons foreign affairs committee. Yet such a move would almost certainly meet stiff opposition from academics. "Many of these prejudices [against foreign-born students] are completely obsolete," Ross Anderson, a professor in security engineering at Cambridge University, told The Scientist. Limiting who can study certain subjects won't protect residents -- it'll deprive UK schools of key talent, he added. "If we start saying to students from Arab countries, 'You can't do medical research here because you might make weapons to use against us,' they won't stop studying medicine -- they will simply do it elsewhere," he said. "In principle, a compulsory scheme might be acceptable, if the FCO could process the applications quickly and efficiently," said Peter Cotgreave, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering lobby group. "But in practice it often doesn't work like that, and big delays would harm our competitiveness." Some UK scientists also say they are uneasy about the idea of Britain mimicking the United States, where graduate schools are reporting concerns about visa delays and entry restrictions for international students as a result of post September 11 security. "Academics say the Americans are getting so ridiculous about giving people permission to come and work there, that there is a real opportunity for countries like the UK to attract more and better students who would usually go to the US," said Cotgreave. And we don't want to discourage good students from applying, David Allen, registrar of Exeter University and chair of the UK's Association of Heads of University Administration, told The Scientist. A major concern, he said, involves "the possibility of putting off good applicants because of the extra process." However, key figures in the sector who have been consulting privately with the FCO about the scheme, say the agency may decide to put the onus on students instead, asking them to apply to the government for approval before contacting the university about a place. At present, the 10 "countries of concern" are Cuba, Egypt, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Libya, North Korea, Pakistan, and Syria. But the FCO said this week that any future scheme would likely be broader in its remit, so that it does not appear to single out particular nations for scrutiny. For now, the FCO is consulting interested departments across government as well as university and scientific groups on this issue. An announcement about the future of the scheme is expected in the Fall, although no date has been formally set. Anna Farrelly Links within this article: Foreign and Commonwealth Office Ross Anderson E. Russo, "US security bad for science?" The Scientist, April 26, 2004. Peter Cotgreave D Wilkie, "Foreign scientists steer away from states," The Scientist, March 24, 2003. LN Nguyen, "Border blues," The Scientist, June 20, 2005. Association of University Heads of Administration

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