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Foreign Postgraduate Students (Counter-Proliferation Screening)

Volume 463: debated on Thursday 19 July 2007

The Voluntary Vetting Scheme (VVS) is an arrangement designed to prevent states of proliferation concern using the UK as a training ground for their scientists and engineers. It is administered by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and seeks co-operation from universities in identifying postgraduate applicants of proliferation concern. The Government asses the proliferation risk and inform the university, which then decides whether or not to offer a place to the applicant.

As the proliferation threat has evolved, we have looked again at whether there is room to improve the scheme. In particular, and as recommended by the Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC), we have looked at the scope to make it compulsory, so that we catch a greater proportion of students of potential concern. We have also looked to shift the emphasis from universities to Government, where both feel it properly belongs.

Proposed Changes

In essence, the student section of the Immigration Rules contains a requirement for certain postgraduate students to have prior counter-proliferation clearance in order to qualify for a visa. The proposed new scheme—the Academic Technology Approval Scheme (ATAS)—requires all non-EEA students in the designated categories to apply for counter-proliferation (CP) clearance. Details of the disciplines affected by these provisions will appear in the ‘Rules’. There is also a requirement to obtain CP clearance when students wish to extend their stay in the UK (for example, when moving from undergraduate studies to a postgraduate programme that is covered by the provisions of the new scheme). Clearance (in the form of a certificate) will be obtained through the FCO, using an easy-to-use, online form, and we aim to process the vast majority of applications within 10 working days. A separate clearance certificate will be required for each separate institution or programme of study.

We estimate that the ATAS will substantially increase the proportion of students of potential concern who are subject to scrutiny. At the same time, we would tighten the scheme considerably by assessing predominantly PhD and Masters by research students, rather than all postgraduate students of potential concern, as was the case under the VVS. However, we would still wish to assess the small number of students wishing to undertake taught Masters studies in Physics, Mechanical Engineering, Aerospace Engineering or Materials Technology, due to potential CP concerns. This allows us to target the areas of greatest concern more efficiently and in a manner proportionate to the threat. It is in line with the Government’s publicly stated CP policy, and is a useful reaffirmation of our commitment. The academic community has also been extensively consulted and is supportive of the new scheme.

Timing

We anticipate implementing a voluntary go-live date for the scheme on Monday 3 September 2007. From this date onwards we will be seeking volunteers from Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) to advise their students to apply for ATAS clearance. However it will not be a mandatory requirement under the Immigration Rules at this point and we will continue operating the VVS during this transition period. Assuming no problems are found we would have a mandatory go-live date of 1 November 2007 with a corresponding amendment to the Immigration Rules. This date has been decided after consultation with the UK academic community and allows them to deal with their busiest time for new arrivals, that is; September and October, without having to produce amended offer letters to meet the ATAS requirements.