Published online 7 November 2008 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2008.1211

News

Foreign scientists face security-check delays in Britain

After its first year, UK vetting scheme claims anti-terrorist success despite backlog.

scientistForeign postgrads must pass security checks before coming to work in the UK.Punchstock

The UK government's scheme for security-checking foreign postgraduate students is showing signs of strain after its biggest test since launching in November 2007. The news follows reports that the scheme had intercepted up to 100 terrorist suspects posing as postgraduate students.

The Academic Technology Approval Scheme (ATAS) aims to prevent students acquiring knowledge that could help develop weapons of mass destruction. Students must have approval under the ATAS before they can apply for a visa to work in the country.

But a spokesperson for Universities UK, the umbrella body representing academic institutions, says that the ATAS scheme is "not streamlined or coherent for international students, and this needs to be addressed".

"In the past couple of weeks there has been a glut of applications to ATAS. Their processing times have gone out the window," adds Sharon Bolton, an international student officer at Imperial College London.

Nick Dusic, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering in the UK, a science advocacy group, says he is concerned that delays may deter young scientists from working in Britain. "Security checks must be appropriately handled if it is not to put off foreign students. Delays have serious personal and financial implications for them."

But the government's Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), which administers the ATAS, has claimed a significant success for the scheme. The FCO told Nature News that out of the roughly 20,000 students who have so far applied for clearance to study in the United Kingdom through the scheme, around 100 (0.5%) were rejected - confirming a figure reported by The Observer newspaper last Sunday. However, the FCO would not clarify how many of these rejections were triggered by reasons other than security concerns, or how many refusals were subsequently overturned when students appealed.

"The fact that students have been rejected does not mean that they are terrorists," says Phil Willis, chairman of the Commons innovation, universities, science and skills committee. "It just means that there is something in that person's background that does not meet the very high threshold needed to get access to UK labs."

Visa risk

The backlog in the ATAS is largely being caused by applications from existing PhD students who needed visa extensions before the end of October, when their current visas expire. These students would have been granted visas before the ATAS came into force, and would not previously have had security checks.

Bolton says that three Imperial students have been forced to apply for their visa extensions without already having their ATAS approval because of the delays. They run the risk of having their visas rejected, which could cause them problems when applying for entry into the United Kingdom in future. "These students are mid-way through their PhDs. We don't want to loose them," she says.

Before the recent lapse, Bolton says the scheme had been running smoothly. A handful of students had initially been denied entry but were subsequently cleared after rectifying mistakes in their ATAS forms, or making small changes to their proposed research project. The FCO would not confirm whether these cases were included in their tally of 100 rejections.

Imperial has had one clear case, earlier this year, in which an existing student needing a visa extension was rejected under the ATAS on the grounds that they posed a security threat. The security services told Imperial the rejection was based on "certain nuances" they had picked up regarding the student, but gave no further details of the rejection to the university.

Teething problems

The FCO is currently reviewing the ATAS, and may pass the responsibility to another department that has more experience in dealing with large-scale processing of applications, such as the UK Border Agency, which handles visas.

"It is important for the FCO and the UK Border Agency to work together to ensure that students are not disadvantaged with regard to immigration applications by delays in another part of government," says Universities UK.

Willis says that "teething problems" were expected, but adds that the scheme was "the right move; in reality it is light-touch regulation". 

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