Mystery of 10,000 missing overseas students

MORE than 10,000 places at Yorkshire universities have been offered to overseas applicants who then failed to enrol – raising new fears that the student visa system has been abused to enter the country.

Figures obtained by the Yorkshire Post under the Freedom of Information Act show that in the past three academic years 10,407 candidates – almost entirely from outside the European Union – were given university places in the region but never arrived.

In at least 5,000 of these cases Yorkshire universities provided acceptance letters which applicants would need to obtain a student visa.

The figures are for undergraduate and postgraduate courses since 2006 before a new visa system was introduced by the UK Border Agency this year.

Under the previous regulations universities did not know whether a visa had been granted to a candidate and universities were not required to inform authorities if students who had accepted a place failed to arrive.

Leading campaign group Migrationwatch UK says the figures raise new fears over the numbers of people who have used university applications in order to get a visa.

Chairman Sir Andrew Green said: "These are shocking figures and give us some idea of the scale of the abuse that has been going on with student visas.

"Some of these students may have gone to other universities but no doubt some get their visas and disappear."

A points system is being introduced which will see all non-EU applicants being screened. Universities will also be required to alert authorities when foreign students fail to arrive.

Home Office Minister Phil Woolas has previously said the use of sham colleges to get student visas had been the "biggest loophole" in the country's border controls.

Ten of the 12 men arrested in alleged terror plot in Manchester, in April, had used a student visa to travel to Britain from Pakistan.

Under the new system all colleges and universities who want to take on foreign students must now register with the Home Office. A spokesman for the Home Office said all institutions wanting to sponsor students would be inspected by July.

Huddersfield, Sheffield, Bradford and Leeds universities provided figures for the number of student applicants who were sent an acceptance letter but then never arrived.

These figures show at least 5,000 students had the means to apply for a student visa to enter the UK but did not take up a place at the institution which accepted them.

In 2007, 1,286 candidates who accepted a place at Leeds

University failed to enrol – 1,238 of them for postgraduate courses. The following year 984 candidates who had been accepted failed to appear, 926 of whom were for postgraduate courses.

At Sheffield University 1,798 foreign applicants failed to arrive after receiving an acceptance letter.

A Sheffield Hallam University spokesman said: "It should be noted that these figures do not mean that those students are in the UK illegally as they may have never left home, may be studying somewhere else in the UK or abroad, or may have been refused a visa.

"International students, just like home students, typically apply to multiple institutions. It is routine for them to receive, and to accept, several offers from different universities but they will only enrol at one."

The most common nationalities for students who failed to enrol at Yorkshire universities include China, Ghana, India, Nigeria and Pakistan.

Tory Shadow Universities and Skills Secretary David Willetts said: "It's clear that the system has been too lax for far too long. Due to the failure of the Government's system for monitoring, Ministers simply don't know what happened to the thousands of people who came into the area on a student visa but never turned up at university."

Students who failed to enrol

Overseas applicants offered university places since 2006 who never enrolled

n Bradford 622

n Huddersfield 407

n Hull 3,532*

n Leeds 2,270

n Leeds Met 165

n Sheffield 1,798*

n Sheffield Hallam 1,215*

n York 317

n York St John 81

* Includes EU applicants.

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