The fraud busters

Each year, foreign students are lured on to dubious English-language courses. Neil Merrick looks at how two towns have cracked the problem

During the next few weeks, as the new academic year begins, thousands of students will enrol at English-language schools across Britain. Most come to London, but up to 5,000 study at language schools in Bournemouth and Poole. This number often swells in the off-peak summer months to exceed 12,000, and whereas bona fide language schools in the capital regularly face cut-throat competition from non-accredited schools, the south-coast towns strive hard to avoid such confrontation.

During the next few weeks, as the new academic year begins, thousands of students will enrol at English-language schools across Britain. Most come to London, but up to 5,000 study at language schools in Bournemouth and Poole. This number often swells in the off-peak summer months to exceed 12,000, and whereas bona fide language schools in the capital regularly face cut-throat competition from non-accredited schools, the south-coast towns strive hard to avoid such confrontation.

Four years ago, tourism chiefs in Bournemouth and Poole persuaded most of their language schools to sign up to a voluntary code of conduct that means the type of leaflets regularly handed out to tourists in London's Oxford Street are rarely seen around the two Dorset towns. Twenty-one accredited language schools plus nine without accreditation are members of a language school liaison panel. From next year, the panel plans to start its own inspection system.

Mike Francis, the principal of Westbourne Academy and chairman of Bournemouth Tourism Action Group, believes that, ideally, all language schools should be fully accredited. But he also acknowledges that some non-accredited schools provide quality teaching and says it is more important that visitors are not exploited by rogue or cowboy operators promising one year's lessons for £300.

Only six non-accredited schools have so far refused to join the panel and sign the code, which includes pledging to inform the police if students with temporary visas drop out of classes.

Bournemouth and Poole College is also a member and enjoys good relations with most language schools. "They're our agents," says Annette Farley, the college's international marketing coordinator. "They often introduce students to us who want to study vocational subjects."

Ministers plan to introduce a voluntary register for language schools and other providers of education for overseas students from January. But accredited schools and further education institutions are upset because it has not been stipulated that all providers gain accreditation through the British Council or other recognised bodies. "I guess we're a little bit ahead of what the Government is doing," says Francis, who has been principal of Westbourne for eight years, "but it is hard graft. We are fighting without any form of legal backing."

The register, proposed jointly by the Department for Education and Skills and the Home Office, is designed to tackle immigration abuse as much as to raise quality. Once it is established next year, students will not be granted permission to study in the UK unless they enrol with a registered provider.

Non-accredited language schools in London frequently promise to assist students with visa applications as well as offering cheap rates. But accredited schools claim that students rarely bother to attend the cheap classes because they are interested only in remaining in the country not in education. Rosalind Armutcu, managing director of Oxford House College in London, has lost count of the number of non-accredited schools in the section of Oxford Street where her school has been based for 30 years. "It used to be about four and then suddenly they were everywhere," she says.

Oxford House charges £2,700 for a 48-week course with 15 hours' tuition per week - 10 times more than the cheapest price on offer at the some schools that leaflet central London. But to gain British Council accreditation, the college must demonstrate that it employs trained teachers and has no more than 16 students a class.

Students pay for classes before arriving in the UK, but there is still the danger that they will be enticed to move to a cut-price school at the end of their course rather than re-enrol at a school such as Oxford House.

Armutcu sees voluntary registration as a step in the right direction, but is concerned that civil servants could still be deceived. "I don't know how someone sitting at a desk in Whitehall is going to know if it's a bona fide school without going to check," she says.

A total of 381 language schools hold British Council accreditation - 330 of which are members of the professional body, English UK, formed earlier this year for providers in the public and private sectors.

The DfES announced in June that accredited providers will automatically be added to the new register, along with state-funded colleges, but has still to explain how those without accreditation will be admitted.

Tony Millns, the chief executive of English UK, expects the Government to make accreditation compulsory for language schools within four years, but claims that is not soon enough. "We would prefer a faster move towards compulsory accreditation rather than them signing on a register which does not really constitute a quality check."

English UK estimates there are more than 1,200 non-accredited providers in Britain offering English language courses. A Home Office official told Millns it had visited about 670 such institutions - 200 of which turned out to be bogus, including one which was a fish and chip shop. "A further 300 were dubious, and only 170 were genuine," says Millns.

Simon Cleaver, the chairman of British Study Centres, says a register could make the situation worse in the short term. "It will enable any mickey-mouse college to say they have government approval," says Cleaver, who wants the system of running courses for overseas students rationalised.

British Study Centres runs three British Council-accredited language schools and holds separate accreditation with the British Accreditation Council for its business schools. "It's madness for so many different organisations to be representing what are essentially similar activities," he says.

Regardless of whether the government makes accreditation compulsory, the British Council expects the number seeking accreditation to double in the near future. It is reviewing its accreditation process, which takes about three years, but says quality must not suffer.

"We want to improve access to the scheme but don't want to dumb down," says Nick Butler, the education exports manager for the British Council. "Overseas, the perception is that UK education is the best in the world. We don't want to damage that reputation."

Millns adds: "People abroad can't believe there are educational establishments in the UK that aren't accredited. They arrive thinking they will be all right and find they have been fleeced."

education@independent.co.uk

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