There has been much debate and comment here and elsewhere about the damaging introduction of fees for FE students aged over 24. Our opposition to this is clear and the ‘Keep FE Free’ campaign will be NUS’ priority in the coming months but it’s important that we don’t lose sight of one of another careless reform being made by this government that is massively undermining the further education sector.

A change that will cost the sector tens, or possibly hundreds, of millions of pounds; a change that is already leaving students scrabbling to find a new college in the midst of exam season; a change that could see some students marked out as untrustworthy and their movements closely monitored; a change that risks a public perception of colleges as amateurish and unreliable.

I am of course talking about the controversial changes to the international student regulations, draconian conditions for students wishing to study in the UK and the restriction of the right to sponsor students only to those colleges with a Highly Trusted Status (HTS).

The government knew when they made a promise to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands that European law prevented them from having any impact on economic immigration from the Continent and that businesses would not accept any stem to the flow of skilled-labour from around the world into their UK operations, so it appears the education sector was identified as a soft target.

This set up an interdepartmental duel as the better angels (this time at least) David Willetts and Vince Cable fought to save the integrity of further and higher education in the UK and to protect one of the few industries that successfully brings money into UK. They were battling the devil’s advocates in the Home Office in the form of Theresa May and Damian Green who are focussed solely on getting the headline number down ignoring whatever comes crashing down around them. May and Green, backed by the Prime Minister, won out and students, colleges, education and the UK lost out.

NUS has been calling for students to be removed from net migration figures so that this important part of the further education landscape cannot be used as political football

A year on the changes are starting to be felt by students on the ground. In Scotland at least six colleges failed the new tougher tests and lost HTS. This left their international students suddenly having to find a new institution or face deportation. The government have just extended the guillotine for those institutions who have not had their applications processed yet, giving everyone a little breathing room, but the assumption is that storm will gradually spread south bringing chaos and upheaval for colleges and students across the UK.

Worrying for those of us that believe fully that FE is not just HE’s poorer sibling should be the potential shift in the perception of international students and our colleges. As we no doubt move towards months of hearing about students whose college has lost HTS and thus visa-less some students have disappeared from the bumbling hands of UKBA, international students will be viewed with suspicion, as infiltrators exploiting the UK’s education system as cover for entry to the UK.

Similarly, as stories abound of colleges being denied Highly Trusted Status the obvious assumption will be that those colleges are untrustworthy and administered by fools. It won’t matter that idiotic rules about ratios of failed students will mean that a college with only a few international students will lose its HTS if a couple don’t complete their course, the damage will be done.

There is still time to avoid irreversible damage to UK further education as a destination for international students. As we put pressure on decision-makers about other things it is vital that we don’t let calls for a rethink on student visas fall silent. Michael Gove has been depressingly silent on this issue so far, allowing the battle to rage between the Home Office and BIS but he and his department must be persuaded to get involved.

NUS has been calling for students to be removed from net migration figures so that this important part of the further education landscape cannot be used as political football. It’s crucial too that a better balance is found between ensuring that the reputation of the sector and the welfare of students is not compromised by bogus or incompetent colleges and creating instability and suspicion within the sector. I’ll be campaigning for these things this year and I hope that others in the sector will join with those in higher education to raise their voices as well.

Toni Pearce, VP for FE,
National Union of Students