Further education colleges have been accused by the UK Border Agency of “selling immigration rather than education”.

The agency said it had beefed up its Highly Trusted Status (HTS) requirements for colleges because of lower levels of compliance when compared with higher education.

“For too long we have seen educational institutions selling immigration rather than education, and too many students coming here to work rather than study,” an agency spokesperson told FE Week.

“We saw the highest levels of compliance in the university sector and, as such, their students are subject to fewer restrictions than those at further education establishments.

“The system is now more rigorous and accountable, with all education providers expected to take their immigration responsibilities seriously.”

In August London Metropolitan University hit the headlines as the first university to have its HTS revoked by the agency, which said it was not making proper checks. The university has recently been given permission to challenge the decision in court.

John Mountford, international director at the Association of Colleges (AoC), said: “It is important that when UKBA talk about further education they make a distinction between private for-profit-colleges and state-supported FE institutions, which is not always the case… Our members take their role as sponsors seriously and have no interest in abusing the system.”

He continued: “As for UKBA’s assertions, we have never seen the statistics that support these. We know, in fact, that there has never been a like-for-like study of how different sponsors perform. It is interesting, however, to note that this is the position from which UKBA is coming.”

Providers can only recruit foreign students if they have a HTS licence. The criteria for such a licence was changed last year: it used to be set depending on the level of the course not on where the student studied. Now there are separate requirements for colleges and universities.

Colleges say that  universities have more leeway to attract foreign students, as their students can spend more time on work placements and in paid employment, and colleges are not allowed to run pre-sessional courses or administer their own English tests.

There does seem a tendency to act in a rather hasty manner with colleges”

Greenwich Community College in south London lost its HTS in December last year. Gary Chin, the principal, said: “There is an unfair playing field between colleges and universities.

For example, an international student studying on a Higher National Certificate (HNC) at university is allowed to work for 20 hours a week, whilst an FE student on the same HNC can only work for 10 hours a week.

“Our frustration is that a market that was going to be lucrative for FE only a few years ago, at a time when we need to diversify more than ever as a sector, has now become too big a risk for most colleges to invest the time and resources in.”

Sue Sharkey, international director of Bournemouth and Poole College, said the number of international enrolments is down this year after a UKBA ban on colleges running pre-sessional courses. These are booster language courses for students that do not have the level of English needed for their chosen course.

“Colleges should have the same opportunities as universities,” she said, adding that the unfair treatment would drive colleges to work in other countries, rather than attract students to the UK.

Mr Mountford said HTS should mean the same for all institutions, and questioned why only universities could administer English tests.

“The agency is, in a sense, saying that universities are a better sponsor because they have the expertise to administer their own tests, whereas a further education college has to rely on an external partner. In our opinion that simply isn’t fair. If you’re weighing up where to study, that’s the sort of thing that affects your decision.”

Students studying at a university are allowed to carry out a work placement for 50 per cent of their course, but those at a college can only spend 33 per cent of their course out of the classroom. Mr Mountford said this is “ridiculous” given that colleges specialise in employer-based programmes.

Colleges must maintain a certain number of points to keep their HTS licence. They can lose points if, for example, a student is refused a visa or does not attend their course once in the UK.

Mr Mountford said this system makes colleges more vulnerable than universities because they are generally smaller institutions.

“If you’re trying to manage a number-based system you’re at a big disadvantage if you’re only recruiting 10 students a year, because you only have to lose one or two students and then you’re off the scale. If you have 2,000 students then you can lose a lot more, because it’s all done on percentages.”

The international director believes there is a tendency for the border agency to take a “more robust” and “less understanding” approach when granting colleges an HTS licence.

“There doesn’t seem to be always a huge amount of willingness to fully understand the college offer.

“From our experience and the feedback we get from members, there does seem a tendency to act in a rather hasty manner with colleges. Some that have lost their HTS status  have it reinstated on appeal.”

The AoC regularly meets the Border Agency and Mr Mountford is encouraged by the understanding and flexibility it has shown with some of the cases discussed.  “Our wish is for them to become better partners. To work with any college that does have issues or problems before any quick draconian decision – which they’re not going to overturn on reflection or further examination.”