Times : Stockport Road, Manchester, where colleges for Pakistani students cluster

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Stockport Road, Manchester, where colleges for Pakistani students cluster

by Andrew Norfolk and Russell Jenkins | April 15, 2009

The bustling, shabby road of kebab shops and halal butchers does not immediately suggest a natural home for the dreaming spires of British academia.

Look above the cash and carry, however, and you will find the Oxford College of Management Sciences. Near the Hajj travel agency and the Lahore lunch house is the UK College of Arts and Technology.

Around the corner are the A6 Premier College and Lincolns College. Next to the Asian grocer’s is the UK Learning Academy.

All are clustered in or near Stockport Road, a mile south of Manchester city centre, and there is no evidence to suggest that any of them are less than shining pillars of learning.

Last week’s terror raids, however, lifted a stone beneath which some Manchester colleges catering for international students were revealed in a less than creditable light.

All but one of the 11 al-Qaeda suspects who are being held in detention were Pakistani nationals who came to Britain on student visas.

At least one, Abdul Wahab Khan, 26, was registered as an English language student at the Manchester College of Professional Studies, formerly in Stockport Road, which closed after a raid by the Home Office last year. The Times disclosed yesterday that the college sold hundreds of places on fake courses to young men in the North-West Frontier Province, who were seeking entry to Britain. The two 29-year-old Pakistanis who founded and ran the college, Fayaz Ali Khan and Asfandyar Bashir, are also closely linked to a new institution, the Bradford College of Professional Studies. Its head office is in Manningham Lane, Bradford, but it also operates a campus in Manchester, which reopened yesterday after the Easter break.

In recent weeks, it has been raided several times by the UK Border Agency and once by detectives seeking to question a Pakistani student.

Syed Naqvi, who described himself as an assistant to the college’s principal administrator, gave The Times a guided tour of the establishment, which runs along a corridor on the second floor of a business park that has known happier days. He claimed to have no knowledge of Mr Bashir or Mr Khan and appeared unaware of any links between the Manchester campus and its big sister in Bradford.

Mr Naqvi said the college had been in operation since January and had more than 100 students registered. Most, he said, were from Pakistan, the majority from North-West Frontier Province.

Of those 100, only two students had arrived for morning lessons. They sat in a bare classroom receiving instruction in management accounting from a nervous Ghanaian man, Thomas Ameyaw, who said he had been teaching there for the past three weeks.

Mr Naqvi explained that the other 98 students were probably not yet back from their Easter holiday.

He was keen to stress that it was a bona fide college, which would not dream of selling bogus course admission letters to foreign students who had no intention of studying when they arrived in Britain.

Those who failed to attend the college regularly were sent up to three warning letters before being thrown off their course and reported to the Home Office, he said.

That was not the way they used to run the business around the corner at Manchester College of Professional Studies, which sold admission letters from an office in Peshawar, the capital of North-West Frontier Province, for £50 a head. A former associate of Mr Bashir and Mr Khan has told The Times that the vast majority of its students came nowhere near the college because they were all working full-time to earn money.

When their fictional course came to an end and their student visa was about to expire, he claims they would pay up to £1,200 for a certificate confirming their impeccable attendance record and the successful completion of their academic work. That document enabled them to extend their stay in Britain for a further three years.

“They used to make £45,000 to £50,000 a month. It was like a fish market. People were coming in, buying papers and going out again all the time,” the former associate said.

After the college was shut down, Mr Khan became a director of the new Bradford College of Professional Studies Ltd. He was also director of another company with the same address as the college’s new Manchester campus, and both he and Mr Bashir are directors of a third company with the same address as its Bradford campus.

Further inquiries by The Times suggest the existence of a web of bogus or semi-bogus colleges operating in cities including Bradford, Manchester, Liverpool and London, all interconnected through a small group of Pakistani businessmen.

One of the colleges, the Cambridge College of Learning, lost its place on the Government’s approved list of education providers after it was raided by the police and the UK Border Agency in December. The two have confirmed that they are investigating a £5 million scam involving up to 2,500 fraudulent visa applications.

The Times has been unable to contact Mr Khan or Mr Bashir. Two of their former business partners are said to have fled to Nigeria and Pakistan. Another is said to be living in the North West of England as an asylum seeker, under an assumed name.

The Times has now visited several British colleges catering for international students. They have smart websites but are far less impressive in reality. Each features the same empty classrooms, the same bored secretaries and the same certificates pinned to the wall, boasting of their acceptance as tuition providers by obscure accreditation bodies. It is a small world.

In most cases, they face no allegations of impropriety. There is no suggestion that any were aware that the laxness of Britain’s student visa system would potentially prove attractive to suspected terrorists.

Yesterday two students studying at the Bradford College of Professional Studies Manchester campus insisted they were genuine students on proper courses. Abdul Kamal Khan, 28, said he came to Britain in 2006 on a student visa from his home near Peshawar. He claimed to be paying £3,500 a year to study for a diploma leading to a degree course in information technology. “It is a good college and I am trying to be a good student,” he said.

Many international students are as dutiful as Abdul Kamal Khan. Some exploit the student visa system to find full-time work in Britain. What no one knows is whether a few of them were planning to blow the system apart.