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Stiffer UK scan on tech students
- Terror clearance for sensitive subjects

New Delhi, Nov. 7: Indian students keen on postgraduate science and engineering education in the UK will have to face extra background checks under a new scheme introduced by the British government last week.

Under the Academic Technology Approval Scheme (ATAS), graduate students applying for a select set of courses need to acquire an ATAS certificate before filing for visas if they are from outside the European Economic Area, including Switzerland.

“The ATAS is designed to ensure that people who are applying to study certain sensitive subjects in the UK do not have links to weapons of mass destruction programmes,” the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has said.

Under the scheme, students who have offers of admission to doctorate or master’s courses in a number of disciplines across biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics would have to fill up a questionnaire to apply for the ATAS certificate.

All subjects don’t require the certificate, though. For instance, a student planning to study PhD in mathematical modelling would require the certificate but someone wishing to pursue a PhD in business and commercial law would not.

The foreign office said the ATAS was “more streamlined and much faster than similar schemes in other countries” because it was targeted at only a small range of sensitive subjects. The vast majority of applications will be processed in 10 days, it said.

But within a week of its launch on November 1, the scheme has drawn criticism from academics and students. Some researchers have expressed scepticism, Nature said in a report to be published tomorrow. The journal said the questionnaire would be “vetted and approved by UK security agencies before students are allowed to apply for visas to enter the country”.

“This is not a very intelligent scheme,” the journal quoted Peter Littlewood, the chair of the physics department at the University of Cambridge, as saying. “It seems unlikely to make a positive contribution to security, and for most students will be an extra hoop to jump through that will encourage them to go elsewhere.”

An Indian scientist said the UK was “perfectly entitled to introduce such a scheme” and if the approval process is done promptly, it shouldn’t cause students any problems. “But for anyone who’s up to no good, the information is available in the public domain,” the scientist told The Telegraph.

The scheme has come in place of a voluntary reporting system under which UK universities notified the foreign office if they suspected a student of pursuing a sensitive subject. A foreign office source said sensitive subjects such as nuclear physics or microbiology could easily be misused for malicious purposes.

Some have dubbed the scheme unfair. “The new screening system treats international students with undue suspicion,” Gemma Tumelty, president of Britain’s National Union of Students, was quoted by Nature as saying.

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