In the Media

Still not fit for purpose

PUBLISHED September 3, 2012

Immigration policy has long been victim of a gruesome conspiracy between cynicism and incompetence. The cynicism was Labour's, in its decision to throw open the country's doors in order to galvanise Britain's economy and, as we later learnt, transform its culture. The incompetence belonged to the immigration authorities, who ensured that even the limited controls the last government put in place were systematically undermined.

Since the days when John Reid condemned the immigration system as "not fit for purpose", there have been sweeping institutional changes - but it is hard to detect much improvement. As a new report from the Commons Public Accounts Committee reveals, changes to the student visa system in 2009 (which put the onus on universities rather than the immigration authorities to check newcomers' bona fides) were so shoddily implemented that tens of thousands of bogus students were able to waltz in. Even today, the authorities are still playing catch-up.

As the shambles at London Metropolitan University shows, this alarming lapse had two deeply pernicious consequences. The first was to allow many people into the country who did not belong here. The second was to poison the well for those genuine students who hoped to benefit - at significant personal expense - from Britain's world-class higher education system.

In recent years, the number of students coming here has grown remorselessly: even though the total fell this year, due to the tighter controls brought in by the Coalition, they still make up by far the largest proportion of those arriving here. To distinguish the bogus from the blameless without damaging our universities' global reputation will be a horrendous task - and one, on current evidence, that seems utterly beyond the capability of the relevant authorities.