Security row over foreign scientists: Universities reject secret Government calls to vet students. Ngaio Crequer reports

A SECRET government proposal for universities to vet overseas students seeking expertise in the development of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons has been rejected by vice-chancellors.

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'.

Life and Style
A teenager boy wakes up.
life
Life and Style
It is believed that historically rising rates of alcohol consumption have contributed to the increase
food + drink
News
An Apple iPhone 6 stands on display at the Apple Store
businessRegulators give iPhone 6 and 6 Plus the green light
Arts and Entertainment
Critics say Kipling showed loathing for India's primitive villagers in The Jungle Book
filmChristopher Walken, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johanssen Idris Elba, Andy Serkis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Britain's internet habits have been revealed in a new survey
tech
Life and Style
Playing to win: for Tanith Carey, pictured with Lily, right, and Clio, even simple games had to have an educational purpose
lifeTanith Carey explains what made her take her foot off the gas
Arts and Entertainment
film
Arts and Entertainment
The White Sails Hospital and Spa is to be built in the new Tunisia Economic City.
architectureRussian billionaire designs boat-shaped hospital for new Dubai-style Tunisia Economic City
Arts and Entertainment
music
Life and Style
tech
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Duncan Campbell's hour-long film 'It for Others'
Turner Prize 2014
Life and Style
food + drink
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hadley in a scene from ‘Soul Boys Of The Western World’
musicSpandau Ballet are back together - on stage and screen
News
i100
Life and Style
Bearing up: Sebastian Flyte with his teddy Aloysius in Brideshead Revisited
lifePhilippa Perry explains why a third of students take a bear to uni
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Alan Sugar appearing in a shot from Apprentice which was used in a Cassette Boy mashup
artsA judge will rule if pieces are funny enough to be classed as parodies
Arts and Entertainment
film
News
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Trainee Helpdesk Analyst / 1st Line Application Support Analyst

£18000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Data Analyst / Marketing Database Analyst

£24000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Systems Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Science Teacher

£100 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Group: Science Supply Teacher position...

Day In a Page

Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style