This is part of my thesis, also published in the Guardian newspaper.
The red door has no handle, just two holes and a battered old hoarding that reads Anfell College, London. The door looks like it could well lead into an old broken house. I am in Commercial Street, one of central London’s not-so-posh areas, in an attempt to extend my stay in the UK. I have heard that colleges like Anfell enroll international students for their courses, just so the students can extend their stay in the UK by getting a student visa, without having to attend any classes at the college. I want to find out if the stories I’ve heard actually hold any truth. The UK is a hot spot for international students seeking undergraduate and graduate admissions. Can colleges here really be pulling off this scam?
Anfell College has an ‘informal relationship with the University of London’. According to Anfell’s website, the college teaches their courses, and the university gives examinations and certificates. I decide to give it a go. As I open the door, a well-used, carpeted staircase greets me. This is the staircase to the United Kingdom for many, like me – an Indian student who “wants to extend her stay in the UK by getting a student visa”. The college is on the second floor.
I step inside the college and it seems to me that the college operates from what could be a large flat. I am greeted by Mr. Emdadul Haque, the person I had spoken to over the phone. He takes me into one of the rooms and a quick glance around reveals two-three classrooms, with a few empty chairs. Mr. Emdadul knows why I’m here… my student visa is expiring soon and I want to get it extended. Following our chat on the phone, Mr. Emdadul knows that I have no intentions of attending any classes. My main aim is to get a student visa extension and get into a job that’ll give me enough returns to enjoy the ‘London life’.
“What course did you do before this and what course do you want to enroll into now,” he asks me.
“I have done a Masters in International Journalism from City University. Can you suggest a course for me? I just need to enroll into a course that will help in my visa extension. But since I will be working, I won’t be able to attend classes,” I reply.
He suggests I do a Masters in Business Administration as, he says, that is the “relevant thing to do after journalism.” It is an eighteen-month course, which is good for me since that would entitle me to an eighteen-month visa.
Now it’s time to discuss the ‘fees’ for the course. “The fees, we normally take two thousand pounds. But you are not going to actually study, right. You only want to extend your visa. So we will charge you £1000,” he tells me.
Thousand pounds sounds good, but I have a feeling it can get cheaper. So, I bargain and tell him I got his contact from someone who paid only £700 to get a visa extension. It works. “Sometimes it (fees) varies because you see, you are not going to study. Okay I’ll do it for you but you enroll now. Half you pay now and half you pay when you are extending (your visa).”
Now, this is the tricky part. If he is not convinced that I will pay him the money, I won’t get any information. Yet I can’t pay him right away.
I try to dodge the immediate fees payment and tell him I will pay through a bank transfer in a day or two. He seems convinced. He asks for my passport size pictures and passport, excuses himself for a few minutes and then comes back with a letter, typed on the Anfell College letterhead. According to this letter, I am now enrolled as a full-time student of Masters in Business Administration, commencing on September 20, 2005 and finishing on July 10, 2007. I need to attend 25-27 hours of college every week. However, according to our ‘deal’, all I need to do is attend two classes every Wednesday. He then hands me a slip of paper with the account details for the bank transfer. The details however, are not of the college account, but of his personal account.
“I am going on vacation after two days for six weeks, but in case of any questions, you can contact Feroze,” he says. I wonder then if he and Feroze are the only black sheep of the college, and the rest are honest. There is only one way to find out… revisit the college after Emdadul has embarked on his vacation.
As I walk out of the college I am filled with feelings of amusement, amazement and resentment. I realise how simply I had just bargained my way into getting enrolled for a MBA degree without having to attend college at all. Are we then sheer fools to be spending so much time, energy and money on our studies in the UK?
My next stop is Oxford Street, famous for its shopping and English language schools. I want to try and find out if I can get a better deal for my visa extension from one of these schools. A few steps away from Tottenham Court Road tube station, I notice a man holding a hoarding giving directions for Scott’s College, London, offering a one year General English course for a mere £300. It doesn’t get cheaper than this! The college has two offices – one right next to a Visa Services office and the other, the main office, in a small street just off Oxford Street. On Saturdays, only the main office is open. On entering the office, I see numerous Oriental and East European looking vacationers sitting there with their cameras and knapsacks, to get information on the English language courses. A quick look around makes me wonder who could ever study in such a battered, old building. The college seems to have only three rooms with a few chairs and tables. Two of the three rooms appear to be offices. “Can I help you,” asks the girl at the reception. With her wavy, long black hair, she doesn’t look English… neither does she sound English.
“I want to find out about the courses as I need to get my visa extended,” I explain. “But I can’t attend classes since I will be working.”
“I think we could arrange something for you,” she says and then asks me to fill out a form. “Oh! You are Indian. The owner of the college, Mr. Srinivas is also from India.”
Yes! Luck certainly is on my side. I fix a meeting with the owner for the coming week… maybe he can offer me a better deal.
I return to Scott’s College the following Monday. Two Asian men have replaced the girl at the reception. I walk up to one of them and ask to meet the owner, expecting to be directed into one of the rooms. “Yes you can go and talk to him,” he says, pointing to the man sitting next to him. Mr. Srinivas looks South Indian and sitting there in a blue shirt, he looks anything but the owner of an education institute. There is nothing businesslike or intellectual about him. In fact, I almost mistake him for one of the receptionists. I walk over and introduce myself to him. He is more than happy to help me and even offer some valuable advice.
“I don’t think you should enroll for the English language course. Indians know English, so that would raise suspicion. I think you should go for the diploma in computer,” he says. “Your current course will finish in September right. So, you come back to me in September.”
The cost of the course is £500, however, Mr. Srinivas offers to give me a “concession”. Next comes the crucial question. Will I have to attend any classes? “No,” he replies. “Just come in once a month and sign in the register. I will show you where to sign.”
Looks like I won’t need a scholarship to support my studies in the UK after all.
A few weeks later it’s time for me to re-examine Anfell College. I call their office with a question – I need to transfer money for my course, but seem to have misplaced Mr. Emdadul’s bank details. What do I do now? “When did you enroll? And what is your reference number?” asks the man on the other end of the phone. “Can you write a cheque in my name – it is Mr. S. Jamil,” he spells. “Actually why don’t you come to the college and we can sort this out. I don’t know what deal you have with Mr. Emdadul.”
So, once again I find myself standing outside the red door with two holes. Mr. S. Jamil is a young, Asian looking man. He greets me with a smile and quickly gets to the point. “Can you pay us personally?”
“How?” I ask.
“Can you get the money in from India? But you have to then pay to me or pay to the college by cheque ya?”
I try to find out why he doesn’t want me to pay via bank transfer.
“If you pay to the college it will be like you know procedure… you have to follow the college rules. If you give it personal, then that will be different. Do you understand?”
I realise he is just trying to stop me from paying through a bank transfer. I ask him if cutting a cheque in the college name will not be the same as transferring money into the college account and in that case too then, will I not have to follow the college procedure?
“In the college procedure, basically we do some personal things like Mr. Emdadul had a deal with you. You understand. But he’s not here because he is on holiday. Because he told you, I can’t change it. You understand? Then you have to deal with me personally. You understand. You have to pay by cheque instead of Emdadul, to me. Then I’ll sort your paperwork,” he explains. By now Mr. Jamil looks completely flustered and confused.
I start getting worried. Is this different man going to change my deal in any way? Will he hike the fees for me? Or will he just insist I attend classes? So, I reconfirm my fees amount of £700 with him.
“We don’t do it that less, but anyway, he (Mr. Emdadul) did the deal with you, I can’t change it… till you get the visa.”
Till I get my visa! Clearly Mr. Jamil is not too happy with the deal Mr. Emdadul has struck with me. He would have liked to see more money coming in it seems. So, once again I try and explain my deal to him – I have to pay £350 right now and then apply for my visa. Once I get that, I can pay £350 more. So total £700.
“Total 700 for what?” he asks.
“For the 18-month course. Because he (Mr. Emdadul) said you will not be attending college,” I reply, trying to clarify the reason why I would be paying only £700.
“Ya, I understand you are not going to attend college,” he answers.
I elucidate further, “He said I can just come in on Wednesdays and sign or attend two classes.
To that, he smiles knowingly and says, “If you wish.”
He continues, “Now you will enroll for the September session. I’m not going to change his (Mr. Emdadul) amount, what he said, but I’m going to change the way of payment, like you’re going to pay £350 now, as soon as possible, then we will provide you the ID card, you will become a student… a normal student, regular student. Then when it comes to the extension, you will pay the rest £350 on that time, then you will apply and we hope that you will get the visa. Don’t worry you will not have any problems.”
Finally Mr. Jamil finally agrees to let me pay via bank transfer. He types out an ‘Unconditional offer for place of study’ letter for me, to be shown to my bank. The letter states that on a receipt of minimum £350, the college will provide me with an enrolment letter (but Mr. Emdadul had already given me one). A few lines later it states that my total fees for the year would be £5,750. I look at Mr. Jamil with a big question mark on my face. This is not my deal. I only have to pay £700. Mr. Jamil just grins and points to one of the lines in the letter. ‘We encourage you to pay the full year’s fees,’ it states. “We encourage you to pay that much, but you don’t have to. Your awarding body will be Columbus University. It is in America. University of London normally awards our Bachelor’s programs,” he explains.
Mr. Jamil tells me I can contact him in case of any problem, since Mr. Emdadul is on leave. But what if Mr. Jamil is not available either? “Actually you can speak to anyone. But you will have to explain your deal with us each time. Don’t worry, everyone knows. I am a student too. I work here part-time, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. My uncle is one of the owners of the college. All the owners are aware of the deals, so you don’t need to worry at all.” After the reassurance, with the ‘Unconditional offer’ in my hand, I walk out of the college.
A little search reveals that both Anfell College and Scott’s College are registered in the Department for Education and Skills’ (DfES) Register of Education and Training Providers, as genuine education and training providers in England.
Students from all over the world have been attracted to the United Kingdom for long. They come here to live their dream of the better life in sterling and designer brands. And some of them just like to stay here for as long as they can. They live off their student visas and work in restaurants and retail stores as waiters or sales assistants. Cashing in on these dreams are small colleges and academies. The way it works is very simple. As an overseas student, you apply to the college or university of your choice, pay the first installment to your institute and submit the documents to the UK Visa office in your country. Once you get the student visa and come here, all you have to do is not attend a single class at your institute, and very soon your name will be struck off the college resister. The best part however, is that you still have your visa, and who’s to check if you are misusing it?
But, soon it’s time for you to go back. The visa expiry date is coming near and you are not even close to getting a work permit. Now, surely while you were busy working for more than forty hours every week at the nearby Tesco or McDonald’s, you must have earned a lot of money. Enter your knights in shining armours. For under £1000, not only will they help you apply for a student visa extension, but if you can’t get a letter from your previous college stating you attended all classes and have completed the course, they will also type these documents on their letterheads for you.
Universities and colleges in the UK have increasingly become reliant on overseas students for cash inflow. On an average, an overseas student spends twice the amount spent by a EU student, every year, on tuition and living costs. In 2002-03, figures show that seven per cent of the total income for the Higher Education sector came from international student fees. Universities UK President, Professor Ivor Crewe says, “The benefits to the UK conferred by international students are enormous. In addition to the substantial economic contribution made by our international higher education activities, talented students from around the world contribute immeasurably to the intellectual culture of UK higher education and are important to our profile, internationally.
The overseas student market has fast become big business in the UK. It is not surprising then, that small colleges and institutes are trying to get a piece of the cake too. However, as the UK tries to walk alongside the United States, as a magnet for international students, these bogus colleges could ruin its’ reputation.
Sachin Joshi, 23, first came to the UK from India, five years ago, on a nine-month internship program. He decided to stay in London and study. “I joint the Academy of Professional Studies to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in hotel management. But I barely ever attended classes. I got very friendly with the faculty and if you have the right contacts, you can get away with anything. Believe it or not, in my exam at the college, the only thing I wrote on my answer sheet was my name and I still got more than 60 per cent!”
“I wanted to stay and work here, but couldn’t get a work permit, so I had to return to India.”
Back in India, Sachin applied to a small college in London, for an MSc in Human Resource Management. “One of my friends in London, went and paid my fees – £700 and I got an 18-month student visa to come and study. Of course I had no intentions of studying. So, when I got to London, I contacted my friend, who arranged for me to get a letter of internship from the college, for £150, stating that I could work full time. But I have never been to the college. I don’t even know where it is located.” In September Sachin will start work as an assistant manager for one of the departments at a five star hotel in central London. At the time of writing, he is working as a security guard in Blackpool. “It’s all about money. You pay them money and they will get you any document want… from an enrollment letter to a full-fledged degree.”
Sandeep Sharma, 26, had to get his visa extended after completing his bachelor’s degree from the East London University. He applied to a college in London for a diploma in computer and has now sent his passport to the Home Office, for an extension. He is certain his work will be done. Sandeep too has no intentions of attending college. His main aim is to live in London and work at a nearby shop, earning the minimum wage per hour.
Akshay Singh, 25, has been living in London on his student visa for the last four years. He too never attends any classes. After working at Tesco’s for almost two years, he’s now found a better job that helps him earn a lot more money. Akshay works in a shop near his house that sells mobile phones. Every now and then he manages to sneak out a few phones and sells them at lower prices to eager customers.
Sachin, Sandeep and Akshay are not alone in their endeavors to stay in the UK and earn money, without being bound by a work permit. There are hundreds like them who enjoy living off their student visas, wherein almost everything comes at a discounted price for them. It is however, not very easy to break into these colleges. They are well guarded and cautious and often run the student visa business ‘on the side’.
YOU SCRATCH MY BACK, I SCRATCH YOURS
Raghav Kumar came to London from India. He looks well over 30 years of age, but is only 27 years old. For the last two years he has been working at the superstore – Tesco, at the same position. He works approximately 18 hours every week. Yet, he manages to earn enough to pay for his rent, mobile phone bill, high street brands, accessories, entertainment, night outs and daily beers. Raghav is not a millionaire, just a plain businessman. “I have a deal with some colleges. I get them students, who enroll in their courses, just to apply for student visas. The students pay me and I in turn pay the college. But, I get a share of the fees. So, I can earn up to £350 per student. Sometimes if it is for a friend, I give them a discount.”
Raghav has helped many of his friends and acquaintances get student visas. He has all the right contacts. “I know a lot of people who can get work done. What happens in these colleges is that once you pay them the money, they keep marking your attendance. So, even if someone from the Home Office enquires about you, they will say you have been attending classes regularly.” One of the colleges Raghav deals with is owned by an Asian, and is affiliated to a Canadian University.
According to Raghav, the system works like a chain. Where there is a link, your work will be done. “You can pull off the ‘student visa without classes’ scam through a university also, but in this case it is not the university as a whole that is involved in the scam, it is someone working at the university. The university might not even be aware that something like this is going on. And this person from the university might be doing you a favour by allowing this or might just want to earn some extra money.”
My next ‘middleman’ is Shanawaz, who lives in a London suburb. He used to work at Burger King, but now wants to go back to his hometown, Punjab, India. His house might not be the most beautiful in the street, but it has everything he needs, including a TV with cable. Shanawaz himself is wearing high street labels like FCUK and he carries the latest, fully equipped, cell phone. I am visiting him to get his help in extending my student visa. He offers me juice and lunch and then asks the expected questions. What course was I doing previously? How was my attendance in my previous college? Will the college give me a letter stating I have completed my course with the required attendance? “Don’t worry if you can’t get the letter. Whichever college you apply to, through me, can give you one for £150.”
Once the details have been sorted, I ask him which colleges he deals with. Which college should I apply to? “I have two colleges, Cambridge College of Advanced Studies and one more. Cambridge College will be cheaper for you, as they will charge between £500 and £700. The other college will charge slightly more because it is accredited.”
I ask him if I could face any problems if the Home Office found out. “There is no problem. I have been here for three and a half years, of which I attended college only for a year. To date I haven’t had any problems.” But can’t the college blacklist me if I don’t attend any classes? “No they will not. They know you will not attend college. And anyway these days, be it a college or university, the maximum action they take, if an overseas student has not been attending classes is to try and contact the student. However, no one has the time or inclination to write letters to the Home Office to complain about a handful of students.”
Siddharth Gupta works as a guest relation’s officer in a London hotel. That is not his only job. He also has a side business – a consultancy service he provides to aspiring international students. He operates from London and from India, where his partner handles the business. Siddharth’s business though, is not just restricted to small colleges. He handles universities too. I call and ask him to help me get a visa extension, through a college or university in which I wouldn’t have to attend any classes. “I will need some time to speak to my contacts. Let me get back to you,” he replies. A few days later he calls me back. “There is one university I could get you into, but they charge nothing less than £4,500, and I haven’t been able to speak to my contact there. I suggest you apply to a college in Illford. It’s called Cambridge College of Advanced Studies.” The name rings a bell and I realise this is the very college Shanawaz offered to me. The Cambridge College of Advanced Studies is also registered on the Registry of Education Providers. I decide it is time to check on this college as well.
I call up one of my middleman and get the name of the person I would need to get in touch with, at the college, for my visa extension. The name given to me is Mr. Sam.
I then place another call to the college and am connected to Mr. Sam. Giving the reference of my middleman, I explain to Mr. Sam, that I need to get my visa extended and would like to meet him to talk about it. Mr. Sam however, says he can’t recall my middleman, and would get back to me. A few hours later, my middleman calls me and tells me Mr. Sam had called him to confirm if he knew me, and would now be ready to deal with me. An hour later I get a call from an apologetic Mr. Sam, explaining that since my middleman had confirmed that he knew me, there would be no problem now. “So, you can come tomorrow to the college,” says Mr. Sam.
But, I want to get all details sorted over the phone. What follows is a reassuring conversation.
“So, it’s okay right. I can get the visa?” I ask him.
“Ya definitely, no problem,” he replies.
Mr. Sam then goes on to reassure me that I wouldn’t have to attend any classes and he would charge me a mere £500 for a visa for “more than one year”. He asks me to bring a photocopy of my passport and documents of my previous qualifications from “India or Pakistan or Bangladesh.” Assuming that I would be coming to meet him the next day, Mr. Sam gave me directions to the college from Ilford tube station and fixes a time for our meeting. That’s one more college on my list.
UNIVERSITIES IN THE LOOPHOLE
I decide to find out the procedure at the university where I study - City University – a well known and highly reputed university in London and speak to the Registry department. “If an overseas student fails to attend classes for a few months, we try to contact the student first. If our attempts are unsuccessful, we send the student a notice of transfer or withdrawal and close his computer and library accounts. We don’t inform the Home Office about the student though,” says a spokesperson at the department. This means that this international student could be living anywhere in the UK, on his student visa, having paid only the first installment of fees.
I realize that sometimes the universities themselves collude, albeit unknowingly, with the student visa scams.
Manav Kapoor, 23, has been studying in the UK for the last seven years. When his student visa was about to expire in October last year, he came up with a plan. “I opened one of the newspapers and looked for university open days. Normally these open days are held because the university has some seats vacant on certain courses and want to fill them,” he narrates. I picked out Metropolitan University, and went for their open day. After finding out about all the courses, I went to enroll for the most expensive one - MSc in Financial Markets and Derivatives. You see, if you enroll for an expensive course, they trust you more, especially if you are an international student, because they think you have to be rich to come and study here.”
After enrolling into the course, Manav was given a temporary identity card from the university, which would be made permanent once he paid the fees. “I told them I would pay the fees in a few days. The fact that I was there in person also made my case strong.” Along with the letter of enrollment and the ID, Manav sent his passport to the Home Office. He did not pay a single penny to the university. Six weeks later, he got his passport back, with a Resident’s Permit stamp on it, valid till the beginning of 2006.
“If you go to the Metropolitan University and look up the register, you will not find my name there. But my excuse is simple and valid. The Home Office kept my passport with them for more than a month. What if, in that time I had paid the fees, and then been refused a visa? And by the time I got my passport back, the session had started and it was too late for me to join in,” he smiles, while sipping a Starbucks coffee. At the moment he is working with an advertising agency, and is in the midst of talks with his employers for his work permit. He is hopeful he will have one by next year. He grins once more at my horrified look. Can’t he get into trouble? “While working in a bar, I became friends with this man who works at the Home Office, Immigration Department. I told him everything and he says I’m safe.”
IT IS THE LIFE TO LIVE
His present job is Sachin Joshi’s third in the last five months. He works odd hours, and puts in more than 48 hours every week. Yet he often falls short of money. But he’s determined to sweat it out in London than go back after a few years. But why would someone with good qualifications spend so much time shuffling between odd jobs and an uncertain future? “There are more options to grow here,” he explains. “Every job is respected. There is dignity of labour. I want to work here and earn as much money as possible, and then go back to my country and start something on my own with that money.” He has been giving this explanation for the last two years, but Sachin’s hard work is visible. He has dark circles under his eyes and looks tired and pale.
Raghav Kumar on the other hand, is plump and red. His teeth have gone bad from excessive tobacco and his eyes are perpetually red. Lack of sleep of course. But it’s not his work that keeps him awake… it is the alcohol he drinks every night. His living room is littered with food and beer cans and his television is set to an Indian station. He might have acquired a British accent, and some British mannerisms, but he likes to live within the Asian community. “I have been here on the student visa for almost five years now. I can go on living like this. I’m just plain lazy. If I go back, I know I will have to work for my father’s business. But here, I’m safe. I work about eighteen hours a week and when I need extra money, I just help some student extend his visa.” As he brags about his relaxed lifestyle he tells me about his latest achievement. I went to the Armani factory outlet last weekend, it’s just outside London. I managed to steal an Armani suit worth £800 and sold it as soon as I got out of the shop for £350!” Raghav doesn’t really care where the money comes from, as long as his food, drinks and living is taken care of.
Senior consultant psychologist and director of Career Psychology, Siobhan Hamilton Phillips says, “Students like these come to the UK for all the wrong reasons. They come here to get away from something. This something could be work, family or responsibility. Most of them are of course very irresponsible. They live from day to day and can’t be bothered about the future. They are happy the way they are because they aren’t answerable to anyone.”
THE GOVERNMENT STIRS UP A DEBATE
The Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Bill, published by the Government on June 22, abolishes the right of appeal for international students who are refused visas. Student visa fees have also been doubled. This is an attempt by the Government to cut down on student visa frauds carried out by some colleges. However, this doesn’t seem to deter students from applying for visas through these colleges. Joseph Brown, who works in Dubai, is still keen on coming to the UK on a student visa, to work, “At least I will be getting some work experience here. It always counts. And anyway, what can go wrong? How will the Home Office find out? Who will tell them? I can just come here on the visa and work. If I enroll into a proper university, it will be too expensive. Plus, I won’t have enough time to work.”
So, if the Bill is passed, will it really help curb visa frauds? Says Naomi Sellick, press officer, Universities UK, an organisation representing UK universities, “Students who are applying through fraudulent colleges can even reapply. Maybe the second time they will get the visa. But, the main sufferers will be students who are doing the right thing. They should be able the have the mechanism of appeal. It is unjust to take the right of appeal away from them.”
The Register of Education Providers maintained by the DfES was an earlier attempt by the Government to prevent abuse of the student visa entry route into the UK. Member of Parliament, Emily Thornberry says, “We should be aware that not all colleges offer a good standard of education and student care, and some courses are of little or no value. That is why the Government made a commitment to a five year strategy – the requirement for all colleges admitting overseas students to be registered with the DFES – came into force earlier this year.” The attempt seems to be unsuccessful, as some of the colleges on the list are still indulging in frauds. Professor Ivor Crewe says, “The Government’s own figures show that one in four visa appeals are successful – proof that this is a deeply flawed system.”
The Immigration and Advisory Service has reported that 59 per cent of student appeals they handle are successful. The Daily Mail reported this month that in 37 universities around 17,000 students failed to show up after being given places. Thornberry adds, “I am sure that overseas students contribute a great deal to our universities and colleges, both in financial terms and educationally.”
As of now, there is a lot of time for new and old international students to get their passports stamped with their dreams. The Bill will not be reviewed till October 2005, when once again the Parliament comes into session. And then too, it will remain to be seen if these colleges will be able to get away with their tricks or not. Says Sachin Joshi, “If the college is accredited by any UK body, in all probability, the student will get the visa if he shows enough bank balance. This is because the person stamping the visa doesn’t know which college is involved in this racket and which is not.”