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Academics asked to spy on students in ID card scheme

Under the scheme, academic staff will have to pass on information to the Home Office if foreign students fail to attend lectures and seminars. The UK Border Agency, a subsidiary of the Home Office, says the scheme will “clamp down on bogus students and ensure only those who benefit Britain can continue to come.”

In the past week, Newcastle University has excluded 49 students from China and one from Taiwan after they were found to have counterfeit documents. It is believed the students may have been involved with a bogus agency claiming to help foreign students get into Britain.

Whilst there are many genuine agencies, it is believed that many bogus operations exist: 300 have been shut down in the past three years. These colleges and agencies allow foreign nationals to apply for a student visa and then never attend a real college or university, leaving them free to work illegally in the country.

Phase one of the ID card implementation scheme is aimed primarily at tackling issues such as this; those on student and marriage visas are thought to be most at risk of breaking immigration rules. Critics of the plans claim that of over 200,000 student visas granted each year, a minute minority are misused. They also believe the scheme will make the UK a less attractive option to foreign students, who inject £2.5bn a year into the higher education sector and are worth £8.5bn to the wider economy.

The Home Office believes the scheme will initially affect around 60,000 foreign nationals wishing to renew or apply for a student or marriage visa after November 25th. Anyone applying after this date will be issued with a new biometric identity card, which will include the individual’s name, picture, nationality, immigration status, fingerprints and information on benefit entitlements and work restrictions.

Visas and identity cards will only be granted to students who show a proven track record in education and can prove their ability to support themselves financially, with funds sufficient to cover their fees as well as an additional £800 per month.

The scheme will not affect students from within the EU, who are free to travel into the UK. Current students will not be affected unless they wish to extend their visa.

It is not just the students who will play a vital role in this controversial new system. Universities themselves are being called upon to help in the implementation and running of the scheme. From March 2009, universities wanting to recruit foreign students will have to hold a sponsor license, proving they are a recognised and licensed institution.

From autumn 2009, a sponsor management system will be implemented, forcing universities to report absenteeism amongst foreign students directly to the Home Office. Lecturers will be forced to report any student who is absent from 10 or more lectures and seminars.

It is this which has angered many academics, who have accused the government of forcing academic staff to “spy” on their students in a “police-like” manner. In a letter to The Guardian newspaper, a group of 200 academics and activists claim the rules could even breach the European Convention on Human Rights.

The letter also claims the surveillance role will “alter the educational relationship between students and their teachers in a very harmful manner.”

Sally Hunt, General Secretary of the Universities and College Union (UCU), told The Guardian: “We do not believe it is appropriate or effective to task colleges and universities with the policing of immigration…if people wanted to go into the monitoring or spying game they would have become spooks.” The UCU has also raised concerns that the six centres around the UK which will process the student registrations will struggle to cope.

Others are in support of the plans, hoping they will make some headway in the battle against illegal immigrants. Sir Andrew Green of MigrationWatch UK said: “We welcome the introduction of ID cards for foreign nationals as part of wider measures to tackle illegal immigration.”

Others have criticised the introduction of ID cards to foreign students as simply a way of “softening up” the public to the idea that, eventually, we will all have to carry an ID card. Liberal Democrat shadow home secretary Chris Huhne said identity cards will be like a “laminated poll tax”. The Conservatives have also attacked the plans, saying the cards will not help prevent terrorism and illegal immigration as they don’t apply to people coming here for less than three months.

The implementation of ID cards for foreign students is the first phase in a controversial £311m scheme which, parliament permitting, will result in all UK citizens being registered by 2018. It is believed the costs of registering foreign students will be covered by visa charges.

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