Foreign students to face extra UK security checks

November 14th, 2007 - 10:16 am ICT by admin  
The Academic Technology Approval Scheme (ATAS) began on November 1.

It requires all graduate students from outside the European Economic Area and Switzerland to complete an online questionnaire if they intend to study any of a broad range of scientific disciplines, including biology, physics, chemistry and mathematics.

According to naturenews, the questionnaire, which includes questions about family background, must be vetted and approved by UK security agencies before students are allowed to apply for visas to enter the country.

The list of disciplines includes 41 subject areas, and the government estimates that some 23,000 students will be affected.

The screenings are designed to prevent the spread of sensitive knowledge to foreign nationals, according to a spokesman for the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) who asked not to be identified.

Sensitive fields such as nuclear physics and microbiology could easily be turned to malicious purposes, he says. “You can think of half a dozen countries where you don’t want this technology getting into the wrong hands,” he adds.

Some researchers expressed scepticism about the plan. The vast majority of academic research lies in the public domain, and it remains unclear how the government will decide who should have access to “sensitive” subjects.

Peter Littlewood, chair of the physics department at the University of Cambridge, said the plan was not an intelligent one, and added that it was unlikely to make a positive contribution to security.

A US entry-screening programme was blamed for a dip in the number of academics visiting the United States after 9/11.

The ATAS replaces a system of voluntary reporting by UK universities.

Under that system, individual schools notified the FCO if they suspected a student of pursuing a sensitive subject for improper reasons. The government decided voluntary reporting was insufficient, according to the FCO spokesman.

“The system now is going to be much more robust,” he says.

Not all researchers contacted by Nature were aware of the scheme, but some said they would not object to it as long as it didn’t take undue time and interfere with the inflow of foreign students.

The UK government has assured the university community that students will not be hit by delays, according to Dominic Scott, chief executive of the UK Council for International Student Affairs, which promotes international student mobility.

The screening will be free to applicants and require no additional documentation beyond a brief summary of their studies, Scott says.

Most importantly, the FCO has promised to process applicants quickly, he explains. (ANI)

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