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?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £38,000

£22000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role is a mixture of office...

Recruitment Genius: Web Hosting Support Agent

£17100 - £20900 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the North West's leading...

Recruitment Genius: Experienced Health & Safety Support Tutor

£19000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Legal Assistant

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

That's a bit rich

The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

Britain's Atlantis

Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

David Starkey's assessment
Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

'An enormous privilege and adventure'

Oliver Sacks writing about his life
'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

Orthorexia nervosa

How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

Set a pest to catch a pest

Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests