By Zubeida Mustafa
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.