Congolese, Chinese nationals under scrutiny after 'bogus student' fears

The impact of controls on recruitment of Congolese and Chinese students to Belgian higher education institutions has been significant, according to a report prepared with the support of the European Commission.

In the period since 2004 covered by the report, Congolese nationals were said to be using forged documentation to obtain a university place, while a rapid rise in the number of Chinese students – to a fifth of all international students in the country – prompted claims that they were working illegally in the restaurant industry.

The report, Migration of International Students to Belgium 2000-2012: Striking a balance between migration management and actively attracting students from third countries for the purposes of study and research, set out to examine the patterns of recruitment of international students, both to French-speaking institutions and to universities in the Flemish region, following the increased opportunities due to Bologna degree reforms and the increasing number of courses taught in English.

A secondary objective was to find out “whether third country nationals use “the student route” to migrate to Belgium for "other purposes than to study”.

Since 1980, foreign students with qualifications deemed equivalent by the Belgian authorities and admitted as full-time students with sufficient financial means have received a residence permit for a year, renewable subject to satisfactory study progress.

The report says that this option became increasingly popular in the past 10 years. The number of study visas increased from 3,749 in 2002 to a peak of 7,270 (94%) in 2008. Since then it has declined slightly to 6,346 in 2011. Overall, more than 58,000 student visas were issued in the period 2002-11.

The growth in international student numbers was significantly larger for Asia. Students from Morocco and Congo – two traditional sending nations – did relatively less well but Cameroon had a significant increase.

The report details the problem of verifying matriculation results from failed states or countries in turmoil, particularly in Africa, unlike in most of the former French colonies where there is a central register of baccalauréat holders.

Since 1993, in most cases Congolese diplomas have been considered at best only partially equivalent – and at worst not at all – in the light of information about rampant corruption in the institutes of higher education.

The report says that the Congolese authorities were also unable to pass on the criteria of evaluation for issuing diplomas or information to authenticate them.

This meant that students with Congolese high-school diplomas could only be granted admission to Belgian French-speaking higher education after attending one or two years of Belgian secondary education before taking the exam.

However the report says that no student visas were granted for such a study path. “This policy to deny equivalence to the Congolese diplomas blocked to a large extent student migration from DR Congo to Belgium.”

The report also tells how the great influx of Chinese students after 2002 made the Belgian authorities intervene. It says that the “substantial” immigration of Chinese students at the very beginning of the 21st century – according to the visa data nearly 800 each year from 2002-06 until they comprised 20% of all international students in Belgium – “stirred up considerable commotion”.

“There were complaints in 2004-05 about Chinese students who had been admitted to institutes of higher education, but who were working illegally in Chinese restaurants, others had handed in forged affidavits of support.

“The presence of so-called fake students among them caused the Belgian authorities to intervene.”

To curb Chinese immigration or to prevent non-students from joining student migration from China to Belgium the Belgian authorities, federal and community authorities, devised new procedures to ensure that student applicants were genuine.

From 2006 students could no longer be sponsored by guarantors living in China; instead, Chinese students had to prove their means by signing a contract and deposit enough money to cover their stay in Belgium for one year (in 2011: €7.056 or US$9,050).

Belgian authorities also adopted the German APS-procedure (Akademische Prüfstelle) to screen Chinese student applicants and verify the authenticity of their qualifications. For some time, the authorities also demanded interviews of Chinese students at higher education institutions.

The report, authored by Professor Frank Caestecker (University College Ghent), with Tess Poppe, Marie Goldin and Carla Mascia, was supported by the European Migration Network and the European Commission.

It records that, at the beginning of 2011, there were 13,985 international students with residence permits in Belgium. The largest group was from Morocco (2,195, 15.6%), followed by Cameroon (1,940, 13.8%), China (1,252, 8.9%), DR Congo (1,127, 8.1%) and the United States (380, 2.7%).