The world is welcome

Tony Blair's pledge to get 25,000 more FE students from overseas by 2005 is on target, writes Tim Walker

Five years ago, when Tony Blair launched a programme designed to encourage international students to study in the UK, he could hardly have predicted that his own government might end up threatening to sabotage those initiatives. But this, according to experts, is what the Home Secretary David Blunkett's proposed changes to the visa laws will do. By increasing charges on visa extensions, the Government will damage the UK's appeal for overseas students, and could have a significant impact on their recruitment. That would affect colleges and universities directly, and it would also endanger the significant contribution that overseas students make to the national economy.

Five years ago, when Tony Blair launched a programme designed to encourage international students to study in the UK, he could hardly have predicted that his own government might end up threatening to sabotage those initiatives. But this, according to experts, is what the Home Secretary David Blunkett's proposed changes to the visa laws will do. By increasing charges on visa extensions, the Government will damage the UK's appeal for overseas students, and could have a significant impact on their recruitment. That would affect colleges and universities directly, and it would also endanger the significant contribution that overseas students make to the national economy.

Further-education (FE) colleges have more to lose than universities; the importance of internationalism has yet to be recognised by further-education institutions, whereas in universities, it is an established fact of life and a substantial source of income. The Prime Minister's 1999 pledge to attract 75,000 more overseas students by 2005 - 25,000 of those in FE - looks likely to be met. But the lack of statistics for international students in FE is just one indication of the difficulties facing the sector in advertising the importance of internationalism. A survey of overseas students in the UK to be published in December, conducted by the United Kingdom Council for Overseas Students Association (UKCOSA), collected responses from 4,000 students, only 200 of whom were in further education. The most recent statistics gathered on the numbers of overseas students in FE are from the British Council, and date back to 2001. At that time there were 48,000 non-EU students in further education in the UK, an increase of almost 10,000 on the 1999 figures.

The boost in numbers between 1999 and 2001 was largely due to Mr Blair's initiative - introducing a fast-track visa application system and making it easier for students to work while in the UK. But now the Home Office has proposed an increase of almost £100 to every visa-renewal charge. This measure could hit further-education students harder than higher education because many of them enter FE to gain the qualifications that will allow them to study at degree level. It is when they change courses and institutions that the charges will come into effect.

UKCOSA opposes the new visa charges. Students understand that they have to pay administration costs, says Beatrice Merrick, UKCOSA's head of services and research; this happens in every country. "But if the government decides to increase the charges for an already imperfect system, it won't be doing much to enhance the UK's image overseas."

Jo Clough, international policy manager at the Association of Colleges, is another opponent. "Overseas students in FE are not necessarily the children of wealthy, upper-class families, and these hefty charges could be the straw that breaks the camel's back," she says.

Another problem to afflict aspiring FE students from abroad is the fact that further education is hard to define. Like many people, even in the UK, government officials in the students' countries of origin have little understanding of FE, particularly as the courses are so varied - from short ELT courses to full GCSEs and A-levels. "There are operational difficulties in some countries, such as China and India," says Jo Clough. "Everybody understands school and university, but FE is complex. We're working with UK visas to help entry officers in those countries to understand who the real students are."

Plenty of column inches have recently been given over to the coverage of dodgy colleges whose principal purpose is either to help illegal immigrants gain entry to the UK, or to relieve unwitting visitors of their cash without providing decent teaching. This bad press has led the government to propose another, more welcome measure: a central register of approved colleges, which will be published in January 2005.

Universities have been criticised in the past for not looking after international students well enough, and many FE colleges suffer from the same lack of preparation. "Often, FE colleges are told they have a local mission, so their international offices don't have the complete support of their senior management," says Merrick.

This is to be the first year when colleges will be inspected for the quality of their accommodation and housing for their vulnerable young charges, following a call from the National Care Standards Commission. It is hoped that these inspections will encourage colleges to improve conditions for all their students. "In fact," says Merrick, "for international students, going into FE may be better than higher education. FE colleges are more aware of students' needs, such as English-language teaching, and are catering to those needs as part of their courses. Higher education leaves students far more to their own devices, and throws international students in at the deep end."

The importance of overseas students to further- and higher-education institutions cannot really be overestimated. "Internationalising our institutions prepares our own students for the global economy, and helps them learn how to work in multinational teams," says Jo Clough. "Having a cohort of overseas students really enriches the life of a college." It also enriches the UK's economy - London has its international students to thank for £1.6bn a year in fees and spending on food, accommodation and leisure.

Many colleges have come to recognise the benefits of engagement with an international market. City College in Birmingham, for example, has cultivated strong links with colleges in those countries from whom many of the city's community derive their ancestry - India, Pakistan and the Caribbean. The college encourages its international students to return to their home countries after their studies, to use their new qualifications to enrich their own economies.

John Leggott, a sixth-form college in Scunthorpe, has fostered strategic partnerships with a number of Chinese schools, and now has a fully integrated and highly successful system of exchanges with those schools. These colleges are not alone. Thanks to the government's big push to attract overseas students since 1999, and to ensure that those students are properly looked after while they are here, the number of international students in FE have risen sharply. This can only have advanced cultural integration and mutual understanding between students of all nations - among them the diplomats and policymakers of tomorrow.

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