Fearing abuse of the visa system, the UK on Saturday announced a temporary suspension of student visas in north India. UK Border Agency (UKBA) officials said the dramatic step was necessitated after an unexpected spurt in student visa requests over the past couple of months, leading to suspicion of fraudulent applications.
The move will affect visa applications in tier 4 of the UK points-based system and will inconvenience genuine students. But agents said this was not the peak season for such travelers, who are more likely to be seeking visas between July and October.
UKBA spokesperson Sam Murray said, "The suspension is in three centers where we witnessed an unusual rise in applications. In October-December 2009, we received 13,500 applications, whereas in the same period in 2008 it was 1,800 and in 2007 it was 1,000."
The high volume is quite unusual for a low season and because of that an "operational decision" was taken, Murray said, adding that the suspension would not apply to centers in other parts of India. While the needle of suspicion points to agents, there is clearly a view that student visas were being sought to be abused by would-be migrants rather than students.
"The temporary suspension will allow the UKBA to continue to scrutinise applications thoroughly and to manage the visa process efficiently for all our customers in north India," UK deputy high commissioner Nigel Casey said.
Officials said applications would not be accepted from February 1. Neither will applicants be called for appointments or interviews if they have been given dates after February 1. Those submitting applications on or after February 1 will also have to wait until the suspension is revoked. If a genuine student is really keen to travel, he or she may apply to visa centers in other parts of the country.
The huge increase in visa applications in October-December 2009 is from Delhi, Chandigarh and Jalandhar and set off alarm bells. "Some applicants are trying to abuse the visa procedure to get entry into the UK for purpose other than studies. We cannot allow this to happen," said Chris Dix, regional director, UKBA, which is in charge of immigration and customs in the UK.
The suspension will be in place until the end of February, when a review will be made, Casey said. This time will be used to scrutinise the system for any loopholes being utilized by agents. Casey also felt that there may be a spurt in student visa applications to the UK since Australia is no longer as welcoming a destination.
He said the spurt in student visas had been taken up with the HRD ministry. The UK is the second most favorite destination for Indian students after the US. The UK had been overtaken by Australia, but recent attacks on Indians there may have scared away many students, particularly of the migrant variety, who may now be gravitating to the UK.
Interestingly, British high commissioner Sir Richard Stagg, while stressing on education being a vital link between India and the UK, said this was a temporary measure designed to protect genuine students, professional agents and good education providers from those who are not currently playing by the rules. He said, "But some applicants are attempting to abuse our visa processes and we will not let that happen."
Pointing to false documents and agents misleading applicants, Murray said, "We have received complaints against agents and have identified forged documents. There is an increase of such incidents, but it wonít be possible for me to quantify that in numbers right now."
Education providers feel that the move may have a limited impact given the current "low" season. Indian representative of University of Warwick Kanika Marwaha said, "Typically, the visa season for students is in October for the January session or July for the fall session. So, I donít see much of an adverse impact, although it may affect some students trying for short term programmes."