Professor Daniel Khan OBE, chief executive of Open College Network (OCN) London, reacts to UKBorder Agency (UKBA) criticism of FE Colleges.

UKBA’s recent comments with regards to FE colleges are both unfair and misleading. It claimed colleges are guilty of selling ‘immigration rather than education’. It stated that its tightening of the requirements for providers to achieve Highly Trusted Status was aimed specifically at FE colleges.

Yet, their accusations entirely misrepresent the FE sector and imply all colleges are guilty of masquerading as genuine institutions, while really acting as a means for international students to gain a visa.

In truth, of the 40,000 FE learners who come to the UK to study, the vast majority attend one of the hundreds of state-supported reputable and well-respected institutions.
It is therefore unacceptable for FE colleges to be universally branded as ‘bogus’ by the UKBA. Such remarks follow Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw’s caution against international students in his Deptford not Delhi speech. Each of these instances suggests a worrying future for FE colleges and their hopes of attracting international learners. This reluctance to value education as an export compares poorly against other countries.

In Australia, education is the third largest export industry, contributing £11bn a-year to an economy smaller than the UK’s. Yet, in the UK we seem reluctant to regard it as an export sector at all. Instead, FE colleges are labelled as a route for illegal immigration and a threat to the educational opportunities of domestic learners.

The UKBA’s comments are focused on the minority of small private colleges who have hit the headlines for their part in visa scams. The colleges that deserve publicity are those that are state-supported and committed to their role as student immigration sponsors. It is these providers who are at risk of losing their international intake, an integral part of their student body and vital to their reputation. The UK is in danger of forcing international students to look elsewhere, primarily to its chief competitors such as Australia and America.

Hence, while the UKBA seems intent on discouraging international students to pursue FE in the UK, there are thriving projects taking place in colleges across the country to do the reverse.

For example, The Grimsby Institute of Further and Higher Education has been incredibly successful in attracting overseas learners and investment.

Grimsby has built a reputation for international excellence in the seafood industry and relies heavily on foreign investment and expertise. In particular, the institute won United Nations Industrial Development Organisation contracts to advise on ports and logistics, as well as the seafood industry, in developing countries. Grimsby achieved the highest rating from the UKBA as a trusted sponsor.

Furthermore, as part of the Prime Minister’s initiative for international education, several London colleges have forged links with Chinese education providers. Phase two of this initiative, which was launched in 2006, focused on the importance of FE colleges in establishing international partnerships. As a result, London and Chinese vocational education providers have developed a scheme to support the increasing need for higher level specialist and technical skills in both countries.

The project is of mutual benefit for both nations and is, from the British perspective, intended to promote UK education and qualifications to the world’s fastest growing major economy.

The Association of Colleges has supported the initiative with its development of an International Charter. This charter seeks to promote colleges’ work to foreign stakeholders — ensuring opportunities to reach the international education and skills market are sought. It also acts as a charter mark for colleges who are conducting their international engagement work in an ethical and honest manner.

This charter is incredibly important in strengthening the international reputation of UK Colleges, especially in light of the recent criticisms. The border agency should get its act together in controlling illegal immigration into the UK, rather than divert attention on to FE colleges.

The whole concept of foreign students being included in immigration figures is a farce and the government’s talk of reducing immigration by reducing student numbers is reminiscent of Disraeli’s famous “lies, damned lies, and statistics” quote.