Ministers and officials from four government departments have been trying for two years to reach an agreement with the universities. The Government wanted the universities to vet and exclude overseas students and researchers who might use the expertise they gained to develop nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
One of the stumbling blocks in reaching agreement has been that university authorities are reluctant to take the flak for such vetting. The government has told vice-chancellors it does not want to change immigration rules, or see greater use of visas. In particular, it does not want a 'full-scale Parliamentary debate on immigration'. It was prepared, if the vice-chancellors agreed, to make a public statement, making it explicit that the impetus for excluding applicants came from the Government.
Ministers from the Department for Education, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office have taken part in the talks. Under the plan the Government would list 11 countries and 17 academic disciplines that in combination were 'a prima facie cause for concern'.
The countries include Iran, Iraq, North Korea, China, Libya and Cuba. The disciplines include computer and numerical sciences, mechanical engineering, aerodynamics, physics and nuclear science, chemistry and chemical engineering, laboratory life science (medical, agricultural,veterinary and biological), and imaging technology and radiography.
All overseas applicants for post-graduate study or post-doctoral employment from one of the countries and in any of the disciplines would then be vetted by the university. The university would discover father's and mother's names; education and employment from age 16 onwards, including any national service; membership of any professional body; full details of proposed area of work; source of income while in the UK and details of any sponsors. This information would be passed to the Foreign Office, which if necessary would send it to experts in other departments.
But the vice-chancellors have overwhelmingly rejected the scheme. According to confidential minutes: 'Some members felt they were being asked to do the Government's work . . . it was unreasonable for universities to be asked to weigh a student's suitability for a course with the national interest.'
Sir Ronald Oxburgh, Rector of Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine, and former chief scientific adviser to the Ministry of Defence, said last night: 'Though we are tremendously sympathetic to the idea of non-proliferation we were not happy with this scheme.' He also thought the scheme would have been ineffective. 'The most fearsome weapons are based on very old technology.' He said it would be impossible to make a distinction between technology for legitimate purposes and that for an 'evil intent'.
But now the vice-chancellors have thrown out the plan the Government may be forced to find an alternative. Ministers have indicated that any alternative 'would be legislation, which would be more inflexible and which would leave universities with no control over its operation'.