Last month the National Audit Office (NAO) released a report on student immigration (‘Immigration: The Points Based System – Student Route), which reviewed the actions of the UK Border Agency (UKBA) to strengthen controls over student migration through Tier 4 of the Points Based System.

Under Tier 4, each student must be sponsored by educational institutions licensed by the UKBA with strict criteria over eligibility to come to the UK, what they can study, with whom and for how long.

The NAO’s findings are critical of the UKBA’s implementation of Tier 4, concluding that the points based system for students was implemented with predictable and avoidable flaws, with inadequate action taken to remedy the consequences of the lack of sufficiently robust controls. The report also estimates that, in its first year of operation, between 40,000 and 50,000 individuals may have entered the UK through Tier 4 to work rather than to study.

157 Group Colleges are major providers of education internationally, for international students studying in the UK and overseas. Therefore we were dismayed by recent public exchanges which could be interpreted to be suggesting that the problems the NAO highlighted with student visas lay at the door of FE and other colleges.

Although the NAO report does not make any such implication, we are concerned that any potential misperception of colleges are being compounded through the media to the public and other key influencers.

It is vital that all colleges should be not be bundled together and considered as a higher risk than universities with respect to international student enrolments, especially those at higher levels.

There is no doubt that in the past some private colleges have been less than scrupulous with regards to their handling of non-UK/EU students, but it is not and never has been in the interest of FE colleges to offer places other than to genuine students. Publicly funded Colleges have their reputations as educational institutions to preserve and have robust systems in place for inward student recruitment, teaching, assessment and monitoring students.

It is undoubtedly true that the UKBA rules have put significant burdens onto FE colleges, like those in the 157 Group, to track and report international student activity and we are increasingly concerned about the number of Colleges who are having their licences revoked, not due to evidence of intentional abuse of the system, but often due to inevitable clerical administrative errors as the burdens increase.

Between 40,000 and 50,000 individuals may have entered the UK through Tier 4 to work rather than to study”

A tiny number of cases of visa refusals, student non-enrolments or non-completions can put the sponsor beyond the minimum Highly Trusted Status (HTS) criteria, yet sponsors have little real control over students’ decision-making and extraneous factors that may affect their decisions and visa applications. The criteria are too inflexible and HTS licences are being revoked despite sponsors providing evidence that they have acted responsibly.

The toughness of the criteria plus potential long delays in HTS annual licence renewals leads to instability, with sponsors under stress and unable to plan effectively. When HTS is suspended for between 6 to 12 months it is very difficult for any sponsor to re-enter the overseas student recruitment market. In essence, suspension of a licence has a terminal effect on Tier 4 activity due to loss of income and reputational damage and may be completely disproportionate to the causes of suspension which may be due to administrative errors or factors beyond the sponsor’s control.

We are fully aware of and supportive of the fact that student immigration needs to be carefully controlled and that sponsors have a duty to invest in staff and systems to avoid abuse of the immigration system. However, the rationale behind the constraints placed upon FE colleges and their students, in comparison to universities, is not justified as a mandate for the whole sector.

The current Tier 4 policy and in particular the HTS criteria will lead to the shutting down of international departments in good, well-controlled FE colleges. The impact of this will be a wider distrust of the UK as a destination for overseas students and a reduction in income to the UK currently estimated at £8 billion.

We urge the Government to support the FE sector in appropriate ways so that we can continue to offer international students a rich and rewarding UK educational experience.

Written by Kate Green on behalf of
157 Group International Network