27/03/2012 02:43 BST | Updated 27/03/2012 04:21 BST

UK Border Agency Told To 'Get A Grip' On Student Visas

The student visa scheme has been criticised for "avoidable" and "predictable" failings by the government's own efficiency watchdog, with almost 50,000 people residing, wrongly accounted for, in the UK

The UK Border Agency (UKBA) had failed to deal with students who had overstayed or breached the rules of their Tier 4 visas. This has emerged after a study by the National Audit Office.

The UKBA implemented Tier 4 for immigration for students outside the European Economic Area in 2009.

According the National Audit Office (NAO), TIer 4 was brought in before the key controls were in place. The UKBA was exposed for failing to check that those who entered the UK as students were attending college. Based on NAO calculations, over 40,000 people entered the UK via Tier 4 to work rather than to study.

The UKBA was further criticised for its inefficient methods of dealing with students who broke the terms of their visa.

The NAO found that the agency was "slow" to withdraw students' right to remain in the UK, where necessary. As a consequence, many students who have not been attending college have evaded arrest by the authorities.

The NAO condemned the Border Agency's "patchy" work on checking that people leave the UK if their visa extension request has been refused.

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said:

“The UK Border Agency implemented its new student visa system without key controls in place. The flaws in the system were both predictable and avoidable.

“The Agency regards students who do not comply with their visa conditions as a low priority compared with illegal immigrants and failed asylum seekers, and is slow to take action to deal with such students. Action planned by the Agency to ensure that those with no right to remain in the UK are identified and required to leave must now be pursued more vigorously.”

The NAO blamed the UKBA for its inefficient practises, saying that it was hard to determine its value for money due to the amount of abuse in the visa system.

University heads have previously urged the government to avoid tightening up student visa rules, as it risks undermining the potential for raising income from overseas students.

Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the influential Public Accounts Committee, said:

"This is one of the most shocking reports of poor management leading to abuse that I have seen. The report found that the Agency failed to check most of the institutions accepting students before Tier 4 was introduced. In the first year, student visas increased by one third: 40,000 to 50,000 individuals probably used this route to work rather than to study. We will need to ask some important questions of those responsible.

It is completely unacceptable that the programme was launched without key controls being in place. The Agency has done little to stop students overstaying their visas. And it is extremely worrying that the Agency does not know how many people with expired student visas are still in the country.

It should be a real wake up call to the Agency that the NAO were able to track down 147 migrants who are probably here illegally within a week at a cost of only £3,000. The Agency needs to get a grip and fix the way it deals with student visas."

The government has already decided to break up the UKBA, separating away the UK Border Force which physically monitors ports and airports.

This followed revelations that a series of passport and identity checks on inbound travellers had been dropped, often without the knowledge of Home Office ministers.