The accusation FE colleges are “selling immigration rather than education” has triggered a strong response from John Mountford, international director at the Association of Colleges. He questions the UK Border Agency’s knowledge of the sector, but also has hopes of a “more common sense approach” to the checking of foreign students in the UK.

The British FE sector provides a world class college skills system that attracts hard-working, bright and successful students from around the world.

These students enrich our courses and campuses, allow colleges to run programmes they wouldn’t normally be able to run, and hire staff and purchase resources that benefit the entire college community.

International students come to learn — not earn. They add great financial and educational value to our colleges and the UK needs immigration legislation that supports genuine students in their decision to study at UK colleges.

This could not be further from the accusation levelled at colleges in recent weeks that they “sell immigration”.

FE colleges take a robust, professional and serious approach to their work as sponsors and it is worrying that the UK Border Agency (UKBA) believes some FE colleges are “selling immigration rather than education”.

Bad science doesn’t make for good legislation”

It indicates a lack of understanding of the FE college mission and it begs the question, is the UKBA able to distinguish FE colleges from other training providers?

It is also an interesting insight into how UKBA views colleges and whether its decisions are made from a knowledgeable position — because the image of colleges trying to make a quick buck on the back of “selling immigration” certainly doesn’t tally with the conscientious sector that I know.

UKBA also makes reference to studies that show colleges are a higher risk than universities. It is unclear whether they are referring to FE colleges or every institution that has college in its title.

We have never been privy to the data from studies that the UKBA refers to and, as far as I know, they are not based on like-for-like studies of the different sectors.

Again the reference to these studies is worrying — bad science doesn’t make for good legislation. The consequences for students and their education from the recent revocation of London Metropolitan University’s Highly Trusted Status (HTS) clearly shows that all sectors have to work hard to meet the requirements of HTS.

It also demonstrates the unfairness of treating different sectors differently, whether this is regarding secure English language tests, internships or working rights.

There should be a level playing field — all sponsors should be treated equally and ultimately you are either HTS or you are not.

FE colleges are simply looking for fair treatment that reflects the sector’s genuine desire to meet our requirements as sponsors.

Some of the UKBA decisions on colleges’ HTS status have been disappointing and a number have been overturned after further reflection. We believe if there was more understanding and better communication between the UKBA and sponsors then these poor judgments could be resolved before the revocation stage. This would save colleges from unnecessary damage to their reputation and business.

On a more positive note, we have started to see a more understanding and flexible approach from UKBA towards FE colleges as evidenced by the overturning of some HTS revocations.

It is also encouraging to note that the UKBA is introducing a 28-day rule to help build in a review period between notification of revocation and actual revocation.

This will allow colleges an opportunity to present their case before their HTS status is revoked and it should result in a more common sense approach.

We are also now having regular meetings with the UKBA, with some positive discussions that encouragingly indicate a more partnership-driven approach that will improve the Tier 4 [foreign adult education in the UK] experience for all stakeholders.

Throughout the process our wish has been to work in partnership with the UKBA to help support genuine students successfully access our world class colleges and FE system.

Hopefully, we are now seeing a more constructive dialogue between FE colleges and the UKBA, that includes an understanding that our sector does not sell immigration.