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'.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
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

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

£27500 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Telemarketers / Sales - Home Based - OTE £23,500

£19500 - £23500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Experienced B2B Telemarketer wa...

Recruitment Genius: Showroom Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This global company are looking for two Showro...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This publishing company based i...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor