U.K. MPs have doubts about a biometrics IT system for screening students

Published 5 August 2009

The Home Affairs Committee looked at the role of the National Biometric Identity Service (NBIS) in student visa applications as part of a report into migration processes; universities have already voiced their concerns that the enrollment of students will depend on the untested NBIS, and the MPs say they share this concern

A U.K. parliamentary committee has echoed universities’ concerns over the robustness of the biometrics system that will be used for visa applications by students. The Home Affairs Committee looked at the role of the National Biometric Identity Service (NBIS) in student visa applications as part of a report into migration processes.

U.K. universities can guarantee that foreign students applying for visas will attend under the sponsorship management system, which is part of the NBIS. Under the scheme, students must submit their fingerprints and other identifying characteristics at biometric collection points overseas for holding in the NBIS database.

As approximately 8 percent of university funding comes from those foreign students, and because many government IT projects have failed, universities are concerned that the enrollment of students will depend on the untested NBIS, the committee said. “Given the unfortunate propensity of previous large-scale Home Office IT systems to fail, we fully sympathize with the nervousness felt by universities about a sponsorship management system which relies entirely on a Home Office IT project,” said the report, released on Saturday. “The consequences for the reputation, functioning and finances of UK businesses and educational establishments of any failure of the system at peak times of the year, are potentially dramatic.”

A spokesperson for the U.K. Border Agency (UKBAtold Tom Espiner of ZDNet UK that while the part of the NBIS that deals with the sponsorship management system will be launched in the autumn, the majority of the system is already running. “Much of our IT system is already in place and is working well,” said the spokesperson. “The final part of the system, which will be used by colleges and universities, will go live in autumn of this year. We have been working with colleges for nearly a year to develop the system and we have a robust and independently verified testing plan.”

In addition, the UKBA does not have enough collection points overseas, the Home Affairs Committee said in its report, citing incidences of people having to travel to different countries to give their fingerprints. This has slowed the visa application process, said the committee. “The requirement for applicants to provide biometrics in person for visas and the inevitable delays associated with this process seems to be causing disproportionate delays and expense to applicants,” said the report. “The challenge with providing biometrics is especially acute for migrants in certain parts of the world where biometric collection centers are few and far between, such as certain African countries.”

The committee added that there were insufficient numbers of biometric collection centers in most countries aside from the United States, and recommended that the government should establish more biometric capture points, including the provision of mobile biometric-collection centers, “as a matter of urgency.”

The UKBA spokesperson added that while the agency had no plans to increase the number of biometric collection points, it was working to improve the application process. “Visa applications can be lodged at 250 places worldwide,” said the spokesperson. “We are continually seeking ways to make biometric collection more accessible to our customers and have agreements in place with many foreign governments to use already established collection points. Where people need to travel urgently we can and have made special arrangements to facilitate their journeys.”