Tightening the noose

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.

Source: Dawn

This entry was posted in Education, Foreign Policy of Pakistan, Language. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Tightening the noose

  1. Isa Daudpota says:

    Good spoken English is essential for acceptance by UK institutions! This is partly because those who are not fluent will tend not to mix well with their peers in Britain. As a result of this failing, students from Pakistan often end up in ghettos.

  2. rumanahusain says:

    I learned that there was a hushed up scandal that actually prompted this decision. I don't have the details though, neither can I name any names but in the end it is the underhanded, ruthless, greedy doings of some for which others have to pay for!

  3. nasim ahmed says:

    I do not see any reason to grunble,if some one is so keen to go abroad or to UK in perticular if he is good in studies and have secured good grades and also coming from affluent back ground why cant he pick up spoken english in few weeks afterall he is not going as a mindergarden student.

  4. Zia Akbar says:

    To cite a salient example: the late Professor Abdus Salam spoke English with a heavy Punjabi accent, and often spoke in simple terms, as I remember from meeting him while a student. Nevertheless, nobody could possibly doubt either his ability nor his articulateness.
    Not everyone that applies to US/UK colleges can be blessed with a Grammar School accent! These measures on the part of the UK Border Agency will ensure that only smooth-talkers (future Haqqanis) are given visas, while others, who may be far more hard-working and capable in their chosen field, are not chosen. This act disgraces Pakistan all the more, for the reputation that its governors and foremen continue to foster, here and abroad.

  5. Iftikhar Ahmad says:

    Have you heard some 'native English speakers'? Many grunt, a lot can't say a sentence without some expletive in it and my favourite…'innit' tacked on to most sentences. Best laugh I've had all day. Useless Native? you will find them not so useless except that they are just much more expensive to employ, as employers find they can employ 4 immigrants at the cost of one native. All this English speaking requirement is just a smoke screen and lame excuse. People who are unable to speak english properly become an unemployable sub-class. We see this all around us. This applies to the native population as well as migrants.
    IA http://www.londonschoolofislamics.org.uk

  6. Shaheen Atiq says:

    I for one am more interested that our youth go to China , Indonisa,
    or Malaysia…to study…chaseing the West, will get us no where !

  7. iqbalalavi says:

    It is afact that education standards have declined and there is a need to focus attention of the civil society
    to consider this as a priority and draw the attentiion of the Govts of the Federation and the Provinces.
    If some choose to go to cChina or other Eastern Universities, there also the standard of education will
    be qauestioned. There is no escape. We the members of civil society need to wake up hold sminars,
    talk shows, and conference on eudcation and discuss measures to improve the standards. iqballaavi

  8. Saroj Kapoor says:

    I had occasion to visit UK in connection with an educational programme . I could feel the anger of people regarding fraud commited by many Pakistanis with a sole aim to enter Britain and then become a burden on their economic ,social , medical and judicial system. Many opt for fake marriages or many for political assylum.

    With the entry of fake students or even non-fake, ordeal of security agencies begin to ensure that the Pakistanis do not blow up their planes ,underground trains etc etc.

    Those who are settled are also fleecing the British exchequer. Having average of more than 12 children mostly Pakistanis are not wanting to work. social check and doles make them very happy. I could feel a mutual distrust and anger towards these kind of attitude.

    A person like lord Nazir whom BRITAIN has given so much went to Pakistan and spoke non-sense. Pakistanis must introspect . Till the time that they change their mindset ,they may refrain from going out of their own country . If Pakistanis reduce defense budget and create educational institution in their own country , they may not want to flock outside

  9. V K Bajaj (Delhi) says:

    With this one POST you have taken up your main issues of Education and Language Issues, Political Governance and the few persons who have spoiled the whole tank.

    It has become necessary to be good at English by reading, writing, listening and speaking. And you have rightly remarked that English Teachers will benefit out of the demand of English.

    The same problem exists in India also though in different manner. Soon Mr Pranab Mukherjee will be elected as next President of India. The core fact is that he is not good at Hindi but best at English. I have never heard him speaking in Hindi. Still our Home Minister Mr Chidambram is also an excellent student of English but hate to talk in Hindi.

    Some commentators has suggested Pak student to turn to other countries for studies. But my view point is that Pak Govt should prevail over such Govt and must sponsor the students, who actually need the Education available only in other countries and the rest be advised to get it INLAND, at Govt to Govt Level. Pak Govt must establish the institutions to check the outflow of student and recruit teachers from UK etc.

  10. Syed Adeel says:

    It's great move by the UK's Border Agency. At least now every Tom, dick and Harry of Pakistan will not have the facility to go to England and pursue their studies at some of the world's best educational institutions there. This is a wake-up call for the Pakistani authorities as well as for the so-called educated class of Pakistan to mend their ways and improve themselves in their own capacities. As for Pakistani education ministry, it needs to take bold and stringent steps, without talking into account the prospects of mass protests and sit-ins by semi-literate and uncouth teachers, to improve the educational standards in this godforsaken country. Where students are concerned they need to stop being cynical about the importance of spoken English and English as a whole. Spoken English is something which is difficult—in fact, much more difficult than written English. In written English you have the time to edit and proofread whatever you have written, making it sound reasonable and fluent; in spoken English, however, you have to be fluent without making any mistakes and you have no room for grammatical and other howlers. Our so-called educated class, who vehemently advocate the significance of Urdu as the main language of communication, would do well to urge the students to learn English with proper accent and dialect. Why don't we learn anything from India which has embarked on a journey of success through a widely spoken and internationally communicative language known as English?

  11. Ambr Amir usman says:

    Whike the currently introduced requrirements for granting of uk sudent visa may seem a little harsh, In my openion It is in the intrest of the intending students to be coversant in spoken english both for sufficiently understanding their lecturers and also for day to day interactoion with the english speaking population. I hope the interviewers will not be very rigid .
    Regards,

  12. Asma Jahangir says:

    Yes – I know it is sad. Space for us is tightening everywhere.

  13. iftikhar Ahmad says:

    What is really appalling is that German students cannot read and write their mother language properly, we are not talking of foreign languages. These are the impacts of our Internet society, a society that gives kids nothing but mobile phones and computer games.

    Kids don't read the paper and when asked about the news, they know nothing. Plus when writing anything it's unreadable. When it comes to math, take away the calacator, there lost. When there parents are told about there sweet children, they say it's not there job to teach there kids but the schools. When will people wake up and make changes? Embarrassing for a country that gave us Schiller, Grimm Brothers, Goethe and Hegel. They must be shaking in their graves. And blame it to electronic media. And we have the same problem here in Britain and USA. But it is worse!
    IA http://www.londonschoolofislamics.org.uk

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