Tarred with the same brush

Reputable private colleges fear that the Government crackdown on dodgy establishments makes them look guilty, too. Lucy Hodges investigates
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The Independent Online

When David Blunkett announced a crackdown on dodgy colleges and fraudulent students, everyone applauded. For years it has been possible to gain entry to the United Kingdom on a student visa and then disappear into the black economy. Moreover, the existence of bogus colleges that take money from overseas students and give them little, if anything, in return is bad news for the reputation of the UK's higher and further education, and can be devastating for the students concerned.

So the government blitz was seen as a good thing for students, colleges and New Labour. But the way the reforms have been implemented has left respectable private colleges worried. "The bona fide private sector has been tarred with the same brush as the bogus operators," says Tim Andradi, the managing director of two colleges, the London School of Commerce and the School of Technology and Management.

The result is that they have lost IT and business students from abroad. Andradi calculates that his colleges have lost about 300 overseas applicants since the crackdown in April. That amounts to about £2m, money that should not have been lost because his schools are among the most highly regarded in the private-college market.

"The Government is about to kill off this business for UK plc," says Professor Mike Thorne, vice-chancellor of the University of East London, which has a partnership with one of Andradi's colleges.

Overseas students bring in a staggering £1.6bn to London's economy, in the shape of tuition fees, rent and spending on hamburgers and CDs. That represents one-sixth of the capital's GDP. "The Government is ruining that," says Professor Thorne.

The reason is that ministers are clamping down on visa applications. In the new world of global terrorism and al-Qa'ida, ministers, understandably, want to get a grip on student visas. Until now it has been relatively easy to apply to a university, be offered a place and enter the country on a student visa. Most universities require a deposit - usually half the first year's fees - but that £4,000-odd sum is peanuts compared with the cost of illegal entry into the UK. So it is not uncommon for the bogus students to vanish and never set foot in a university once they get here.

The Government is hoping to change that by establishing a register of reputable colleges. Students would only be entitled to a visa to study at one of these establishments.

So far, so good. The problem was that when the Home Secretary announced the crackdown in April, the UKvisas department of the Home Office put out a statement on the internet that mentioned that applications for visas might be subject to considerable delay. Written in question- and-answer format, the statement said: "Which colleges are affected? Only private educational establishments."

This, the reputable private colleges felt, was misleading: in fact, it was only some private colleges that were causing concern. "We were amazed at that," says Maurice Dimmock, the former director of international operations at Northumbria University, who has set up the Quality International Study Abroad Network, a body to accredit educational agents. "Some of the quality control that takes place in the private sector far exceeds that in some universities." Andradi's colleges, for example, have strict rules on attendance and throw out students who fail to turn up to lectures.

The effect of the Home Office's missive was serious. It led to an increased number of legitimate visas being held up or refused, and effectively lumped reputable operators together with bogus ones.

The respectable colleges were so concerned they decided to act. Lord Tomlinson, the Labour peer and former minister for Europe, was wheeled in to make contact with the Government. Within hours, the UKvisa web message was changed to make it clear that visas were being scrutinised more closely only when they were being given to students at some private colleges.

The colleges recognise that things have improved as a result. But they say the damage has already been done. "The message still has to go down through the ranks," says Lord Tomlinson. "There is confusion because of the talk about private sector colleges as a single group, when they range from the extremely good to the totally fraudulent."

Some publicly funded institutions feel that they are also being affected by the crackdown. The University of East London, for example, has a big programme with Beijing Union University whereby Chinese students come to study in London each year. Normally 50 come, accompanied by their teachers. This year, however, UEL has a little over 20 on the course that starts in the autumn and 10 have had their visa applications turned down, "for no good reason" according to Professor Thorne.

The result of the brouhaha is that a new organisation was established last month - the Association of Independent Higher Education Providers - representing the more respectable end of the private higher education market. Chaired by Lord Tomlinson, its founding members are Bellerbys, the Holborn College of Law and Andradi's schools. Its aim is to lobby Government and help to weed out bogus colleges and those offering bogus degrees. It is currently talking to Government officials about how the register of approved colleges will be compiled, and what changes are needed in visa rules. But it is worried that the Government does not seem to be listening.

Respectable colleges want a change to visa rules to require students to be attached to a specific university. This would stop them being lured away to bogus, cheaper operators once they are in the UK. The Australians link students to specific institutions on their visa. Why can't the British, they ask?

The colleges agree that students should be allowed to switch universities or colleges if they don't like their course, but think they should only be allowed to move to a college on the new register. The signs are that the Government does not agree.

In addition, the colleges would like the register of approved colleges to be drawn up on the basis of educational quality, and for an assessment to be made of this. "We want all UK universities and colleges to have rigorous attendance records, for example," says Professor Cedric Bell, the chief executive of Holborn College. Again, the indications are that the Government does not want to go as far as this. "We thought originally that the Government was going to take rigorous steps to regulate the private sector," says Professor Bell. "I am now concerned that the steps might not be as rigorous as was first intended."

To the outsider, it looks as though the Blunkett statement was produced, with typical New Labour panache, to capture newspaper headlines but that, when civil servants sat down to consult interested parties, they found reasons to be more cautious. One of their concerns, they say, was not to burden students with extra costs.

That is the main reason being given by the Home Office for not wanting to attach an overseas student to a specific institution on his or her visa. "If a student wanted to move colleges once in the UK, they would need to apply to the Immigration and Nationality Directorate to change their visa, and that would incur a charge," says a spokeswoman. It could cost up to £150.

"The vast majority of students are legitimate and we in no way want to be putting them off from the UK," she adds.

The register has not yet been drawn up but it will be by the end of the year, and it will be voluntary because that's the easiest way to do it, according to Nick Butler, the international exports manager of the British Council.

The Home Office has identified English-language colleges as a problem area, so it is moving towards establishing an accrediting system for this sector over the next few years. These colleges will be actively encouraged to seek accreditation. What civil servants are still discussing are the criteria for the register of private-education colleges. What should these be?

A regulatory impact assessment has been carried out by PricewaterhouseCoopers. It looked at the idea of compulsory assessment for each college but decided that this would be too costly for the establishments and might put them out of business, according to a spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills.

So the register will be confined to asking questions such as whether the college is legitimate, and whether it provides the kind of courses it says it does.

Publicly funded institutions that have to undergo all kinds of accountability checks in any case will automatically be on the register. So will colleges such as Andradi's, which are accredited by the British Accreditation Council. "For other private providers we will make sure the checks are based on accounts and exam achievements," says the DfES spokesman.

None of this, however, will reassure colleges such as Andradi's, whose heads want a tougher regime to sort out the sheep from the goats. Dominic Scott, the chief executive of the UK Council for Overseas Student Affairs, believes that anxiety is being fomented by having several Government departments batting ideas around with an array of organisations over a number of months. "We're keen that this should be pulled together strategically and rapidly," he says.

He also believes that the Government should give overseas students some objective advice on what constitutes a bona fide education so that they are able to avoid the fly-by-night colleges who take people's money and give them little in return.

The questions remain: will the Government's crackdown be tough enough to put the ropey colleges out of business? Isn't it better to see them go to the wall than have unhappy customers giving UK education a bad name?