Biometrics system for foreign students

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A 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.

UK 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.

However, as approximately eight per cent of university funding comes from those foreign students, and because many government IT projects have failed, universities are concerned that the enrolment 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 sympathise 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 UK Border Agency (UKBA) told silicon.com sister site ZDNet UK on Wednesday 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 centres are few and far between, such as certain African countries.”

The committee added there were insufficient numbers of biometric collection centres in most countries aside from the US, and recommended the government should establish more biometric capture points, including the provision of mobile biometric-collection centres, “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.”

The seven-year NBIS contract was awarded to IBM in April.

Original article: MPs show lack of faith in biometrics IT system from ZDNet UK