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Foreign students' battle for Britain

Overseas pupil numbers tumble as tough new visa rules restrict entry into the UK. Martin Whittaker reports

Businessman Mohammed Shabir enjoyed his days at Willesden college of technology back in the Eighties. So when his nephew in Pakistan wanted to become a computer service engineer, he had no hesitation recommending his old alma mater, now part of the College of North West London.

Mr Shabir offered to support his nephew while studying in the UK and paid half of his annual college fee up front. Last April, 20-year-old Muhammad Malik was granted a visa and is now enrolled at the college studying IT.

But he only got there after his uncle spent nearly pound;2,000 waging a year-long battle with British Embassy officials in Islamabad.

When Mr Shabir supplied evidence to visa staff they refused to accept it and accused him of faking documents. On interviewing his nephew in May 2004, entry clearance officers refused to make a couple of phone calls to validate the documents.

Following protests from Mr Shabir's solicitor and his MP Sarah Teather, the officials granted Muhammad Malik a further interview last October. "They agreed the documents were valid, but said his English was not good enough and that I did not have enough funds to support him, which is untrue," said Mr Shabir.

"They asked him questions like 'why did your uncle choose the college? Why didn't you choose one yourself?' But many families have a tradition of studying in the same place." His nephew's case was upheld at an appeals tribunal in April.

Muhammad Malik is one of the lucky ones. The College of North West London says ever-tightening visa regulations are making it increasingly difficult for foreign students to get in.

Numbers of overseas students at the college dropped from 600 in 2002 to barely 300 last year. Students from Nigeria, Ghana, The Gambia and Pakistan are reporting increasing visa refusals this academic year.

The largest group among its international students have come from Jamaica, but in three years these numbers have fallen from 120 to just 24 students.

With foreign students paying nearly pound;4,000 a year in fees, the dwindling numbers have seriously hit the college's income.

The college says the loss of international students has also cut back on industry links abroad, as well as the chance to share different perspectives and cultures.

Maria Lonergan, the college's international student liaison officer, said visa appeal cases are on the increase. Some students from West Africa were refused visas and had to wait up to two years before they could take up college places following successful appeals.

"We have had 100 students who were refused visas this year alone," she said.

"They are given all kinds of reasons and sometimes they are very silly.

Sometimes I hear things like 'the college isn't a genuine college'. We are the biggest college in London. We are taking steps to change this now. We are going to have watermarked paper, making sure we have all the right logos and that we are listed as a government-funded college on the paperwork."

In 1999, Tony Blair launched an initiative to establish the UK as a world leader in international education. His aim was to increase international student numbers by 50,000 in higher education and 25,000 further education students by the year 20042005, targets which were achieved early.

The Department for Education and Skills' international strategy is to further expand numbers of foreign students in the UK, and foster education links abroad.

Last year, though, some colleges reported a 60 per cent fall in overseas enrolments.

Principals blamed the fall on government measures to curb potential abuse of the visa system and higher prices for visas.

One major issue has been that, in some countries, entry clearance officers have made the wrong decisions on educational grounds, often because they do not understand further education.

Examples include some FE colleges accused of not being approved institutions, students being told that their English was not good enough to do the course when they were hoping to study English, and officials refusing to believe that a student could take a higher-level course at an FE college.

College principals and university vice-chancellors have lobbied the Government, protesting that a range of measures tightening up on visas have given out the cumulative message that foreign students are not welcome.

Jo Clough, the Association of Colleges' international director, said the Government is now listening following the launch of a joint education "task force" reporting to Home Office minister Tony McNulty.

"A lot of progress has been made and I'm very encouraged," she said. "We've now got channels of communication with the Home Office and UK Visas and they do appear to be bending over backwards to listen to us."

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