WHILE the unending political circus in Islamabad engages the nation’s attention, there are significant developments in other fields that have escaped the media’s notice.

Take the case of the changes in the UK’s student visa rules for Pakistanis which put the spotlight on our collapsing education system and the yearning of a large number of our youth to escape from their country by hook or by crook.

Against the backdrop of the growing number of applicants in Pakistan for British student visas, the UK’s Border Agency (that now handles visa applications) held a “secret pilot study” across a few countries, including Pakistan. According to press reports this estimated that 40 per cent of Pakistani applicants were “ineligible for studies in the UK”. The yardstick used was their spoken English skills. Under the new rules, Pakistani applicants intending to study in the UK are required to appear for a mandatory face-to-face interview so that consular officials can assess their spoken English. Previously admission to British universities and visa applications were paper-based. Every year approximately 10,000 people were allowed to enter Britain on student visas from Pakistan.

What is intriguing is that the results for Bangladesh and India were not satisfactory either but Pakistan is the only country that has been selected for the new procedures. Daniel Stevens, a council member of the National Union of Students (NUS), which has launched a campaign against what is seen as an anti-immigration move by the Conservative government, has described this step as “absolutely absurd and discriminatory”.

All this will have profound implications for Pakistani students. No one would quarrel with the British for weeding out bogus visa applicants who seek ‘backdoor immigration’ into Britain. Such fraud should be stopped. Three years ago another student visa scam had led to the tightening of rules. The British discovered to their horror that dubious ‘paper colleges’ and ‘non-existent universities’ on British soil were providing admissions to Pakistanis in lieu of handsome payouts to enable fake ‘students’ to enter the country.

This problem was seemingly resolved when all educational institutions in the UK admitting foreign students were asked to register with the Border Agency. Of the 2,100 that applied, the applications of 460 institutions were turned down as they lacked credentials.

It appears the problem still remains. The route the government is now taking could affect many genuine students as well because they are found “not to speak English well enough to qualify” whatever that might mean. Will it be right to disqualify students who are genuine, might be brilliant in the subject they want to study, understand spoken English well, can express themselves comprehensively on paper in English but cannot speak the language ‘well enough’? Should they be denied a British higher education?

Many in England are unhappy about this arrangement. Apart from NUS, the British Council, a web magazine for international students at www.foreignstudents.com and the Russell Group that describes itself as the representative of “20 leading UK universities which are committed to maintaining the very best research, an outstanding teaching and learning experience” have raised strong objections.

The fear has been voiced that restricting the number of foreign students will hurt the education sector that is dubbed as Britain’s major export. Foreign students enrolled in British universities fetch between £5.3bn and £8bn annually through tuition fees alone while their total contribution to the UK economy is estimated to be £14.1bn.

Stevens who describes the visa rules as unfair says, “You need a large amount in your bank account to be able to study here. But it shouldn’t be a system based on money. Some institutions do treat international students as cash cows.”

Doubts have also been cast on the tests. The accuracy of the assessment will depend on how it is carried out. Writing for The Guardian-Learning English, Max de Lotbinière was sceptical on another count. He pointed out in his article ‘The art of assessing conversation’ (May 15, 2012), “Little information is available about how the interviews will be conducted, or what training consular staff will be given. The complexity and challenges of assessing learners’ speaking and listening skills are well known to teachers.”

Given the way English is taught in Pakistan — with emphasis on the written language — and the social bias against non-English speakers, few acquire conversational skills in the language. If students end up being intimidated in a tense environment, are they to blame? The assessment might be arbitrary. It seems that the admission procedures at universities still leave loopholes to allow ‘bogus students’ to pass through the system. Students are required to produce certificates from accredited English language tests.

What is worrying is that this approach might bring Pakistani students at home, especially those of modest means, under pressure as well. As it is, education is the lowest priority of the government here making the not so affluent students desperate to go abroad for higher studies to improve their prospects. Foreign universities remain the only available option. This will increase the demand for English in Pakistan while the demand for knowledge will go down, as is already happening.

While our education ministers turn a blind eye to the education catastrophe we face, the changes in the student visa processes is one of the best kept secrets here. The British media have reported these developments widely but when I tried to obtain information at this end I met with a wall of silence.


Updated Jul 11, 2012 12:20am

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Comments (22) (Closed)

Jul 11, 2012 04:00am
Britons have right to defend themselves from unwanted intrusion in their way of living. 2005 London Bombings, 2007 Glasgow bombing and 2008 Exeter bombings are all blamed on Islamist groups. Also the British Pakistani men caught for predating and sexually abusing White underage girls did not win Pakistanis many friends in Britain. People who cannot speak English or cannot mix in their social milieu should not attempt going to UK .
Jul 11, 2012 10:07am
@Imran - Can you really blame them? Have you ever thought about Pakistan from an Indian's viewpoint? Children who grow up in India and study in Indian schools are not taught about the 'scheming', 'evil' Pakistani, that Pakistan is the eternal enemy of India. They are taught to respect all religions and cultures. And I can assure you that Indian parents of today do not spend their waking hours teaching their children how to hate Pakistan. They probably have better lessons to impart, like how to excel and succeed in today's interconnected world. Then how is it that even today, when these kids become young adults, they develop this distaste for the Pakistani nation?? I think you know very well that the same can be asked of people from any country of the world today.
ss verma
Jul 12, 2012 01:41am
Itrs obvious what Pakistan has to do: also subject Brits wanting a visa to Pakistan to a face to face interview to determine their Urdu proficiency. +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Jul 11, 2012 09:43pm
I thought that they were teaching Chinese as 2nd language in Pakistan instead of English? So how can you go to UK anyway for study when you only know Urdu and Chinese?
Jul 11, 2012 10:09am
I agree this should not be another Indo Pak match - Bangladesh will be upset as they are also in the game! On a serious note this is partly a racist move and would be extended to all 'browns' over time. South Asians should develop their education systems instead of looking westwards - or may be go to Australia or New Zealand.
Pavas Ambashta
Jul 11, 2012 11:01am
Face-to-face interview specially for Pakistani students hints that the British Governemnt wants tp become assured that only genuine students should get admission and no more "freedom fighters from the land of pure" should get in.
Syed Ahmed
Jul 11, 2012 05:06pm
Whatever, this will not affect the children of the elite and those possessing dual nationality. Others try burning the midnight oil.
Jul 11, 2012 02:25pm
Who says the Brits are bad?
Jul 11, 2012 11:53am
Well, I agree that a host country has a right to put regulations on those stepping in its premises. However, there are two things that go against this idea. 1. Why only is this policy being targeted towards Pakistani students? 2. As the writer pointed out, this kind of interview-based admissions will leave loopholes since how can you judge that a person with good speaking skills has good problem-solving skill as well?
Jul 11, 2012 05:00am
Its really Funny. Are you asking why they are doing this to Pakistan??? When was the last time you checked Credentials for Pakistan ??? Why dont you ask these same questions to Saudi for ill trating Pakistani Brothers ??? Because you know they dont care.
kabir khan
Jul 11, 2012 05:26am
there is no differences between me and you (according to historical background) ,as our( universities both in India and Pakistan) still remain anchored to the pattern that has been introduce a century ago by our British ruler to serve administration need.
Jul 11, 2012 05:56am
A host country has absolute right to select who it wants to let in and for what purpose. For the guests it is a privilege, not a right.
Mahesh Patil
Jul 11, 2012 07:00am
In Germany if you want to pursue undergraduate courses which are in German language, the student has to pass DSH test which comprises three parts-Hearing,speaking and writing.If a student can get through hearing and speaking parts not scoring less than 60% he is iligible to appear for written test.When you are going to different country you should accept their criteria,respect their culture and not adhere to your culture only and keep complaning. Pakistanis should do some soul searching.You are always in state of denial.Terrorism is systemately being supported in your country and your beatiful country is suffering.You may disagree with me.In any foreign country when you present your passport to authority you get a second look.It is very sad.
Jul 11, 2012 07:35am
I doubt that genuine students will be stopped via this route. Only the bogus students will be filtered out.
Jul 11, 2012 07:53am
It never fails to impress me how you Indians can convert even such a non-political news item into a Pakistan-bashing opportunity. Hats off to your unending pathological hatred. And then you wonder why Jinnah created Pakistan. On a positive note its good to see Indians in such numbers on our websites.
Cyrus Howell
Jul 11, 2012 07:56am
World War II has been over for 65 years. This is the 21rst century. India kept it's bargain with Great Britain. One million Indians (of every religion) went to war and were promised Indian independence if they did (and British passports).. Those days are gone now and so are those older kindly Brits who experienced the war. Gone are the Sikhs and Muslim farmers who left Punjab to fight with the 14th Army. The bond between Britain and Pakistan has been broken forever. You chose your bed. When Muslims bombed the London tube stations young Pakistani Muslims in Britain. These were the tube stations that gave Londoners and their children shelter from the Nazi firestorm during the Battle of Britain. Although their homes were destroyed the English were able to carry on. This was a desecration of the British way of life by the unthinking and the unfeeling.
Jul 11, 2012 08:11am
Try to understand what makes the British put extra hurdles for pakistan muslims. Anyhow, the entire pakistani muslim society does not believe in discussions and debates, therefore it is no surprise you are not able to see the invisible links.
Cyrus Howell
Jul 11, 2012 08:13am
Not only has the level of education fallen in Pakistan but the level of morality and ethics have taken a nose dive off the high board, and there is no more water in the pool. The young Pakistani elite think they deserve it because they want it. Yes, there is a signal here from Westminster. Those who cannot speak English were educated in the madrassas and religious schools. There are two tickets. To Cambridge. To the Dustbin. I have a young Bangladeshi friend who is an imam in a small Muslim congregation in London who has asked me to help him find a religious wife. He is a nice guy. Bangladeshis in London consider the Pakistanis too hostile. Ask the girls.
Jul 11, 2012 08:24am
I still wonder, if we are all that bad, why are they always here in droves sabotaging soiling the very place that allows them this freedom, they spout hate without shame on our generous hospitality.
Jul 11, 2012 08:37am
It also never fails to impress me how Pakistan has been able to make the whole world its enemey. Forget about the venom spitting Indians who are out to get Pakistan, even friends like USA, UK who have shielded pakistan from nefarious Indians are becoming bad. By the way this article has grave political intonations to it as the author says that the same treatment is not being metted out to Indians and bangladeshis. I would say forget religion, this action of UK is a direct assessment of how pakistan figures in their imagination. There is still time, mend your ways.
El Cid
Jul 11, 2012 08:54am
“...older kindly Brits...This was a desecration of the British way of life'. Really? For two hundred years they committed atrocity after atrocity, and extreme exploitation of the Sub-Continent natives. They were the ones who desecrated and despised their humanity, the gentle Indian way of life...they looted castles, forts, mosques, temples, treasury. Even today your Queen wears the Mogul jewels in her crown, including the unique beauty of the Kooh-Noor...! Your Tower of London is full of this loot. Without the looting of India you would be a pauper nation. The Brits were thrown out by stalwart Jinnah and Gandhi.
Jul 11, 2012 09:28am
Dear Khan you are correct in saying that but worries me is that this persistent conflict will finally lead to huge differences between two populations. We need to keep an even keel in light of any hopein future for resolution of this conflict. Differences can be resolved however poles cannot meet. So lets not each walk to the opposite poles.