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'College' title needs legal protection, say FE leaders

Safeguard is vital to prevent students being hoodwinked by `bogus' institutions, argue sector chiefs

Safeguard is vital to prevent students being hoodwinked by `bogus' institutions, argue sector chiefs

Further education leaders in Scotland are still awaiting a decision by the coalition Government at Westminster on what it intends to do on a UK basis about "bogus colleges".

Despite moves by the previous Government which have been welcomed, Scotland's Colleges is holding out for ministers to agree that the term "college" should be protected by law, like the "university" title. It says this would prevent students, especially those from overseas, being hoodwinked by businesses pretending to offer a legitimate college education.

Concern has even been voiced that such fraudulent institutions could provide cover for terrorist activities.

Neil Cuthbert, policy officer at Scotland's Colleges, acknowledges that the Westminster Government is "listening" and says they had "positive discussions" with Lord Wallace, the Advocate General for Scotland, when he addressed their annual conference in Dunblane in June.

Lord Wallace, a Lifelong Learning Minister in the previous Scottish Government, said that, while the previous UK Government had started to tackle the issue, "we must do more . to eradicate this stain on the sector".

Action by former Labour ministers was confined to allowing members of the public to report businesses trading under misleading names, and to close them down if necessary.

But the UK Council of Colleges, which includes Scotland's Colleges, said in a letter to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in London: "We remain concerned that this approach leaves the burden of proof on the complainant and is likely to require a long time for the complaint to be considered and acted upon."

The coalition Government's programme contains a pledge to "introduce new measures to minimise abuse of the immigration system, for example by student routes". Lord Wallace believes this, along with checks applied by the UK Border Agency, "will help to drive out the bogus colleges and make it tougher for the phoney students who only want to work here".

The previous Government argued that it could not proscribe the word "college" because it was so widely used and because there was no register of business names. Lord Wallace says he has asked the Scotland Office to liaise with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to see if that is still the current thinking.

But Scotland's Colleges says the indiscriminate use of "college" is precisely the problem, pointing out that it may deliberately mislead potential students. In December 2009, a company called Glasgow City College Ltd was set up and its website is trying to recruit overseas students who are likely to confuse it with the City of Glasgow College, the name of the three newly-merged public colleges in Glasgow city centre (see below).

Similarly, a private firm has chosen to operate under the name Edinburgh School of Business, which is very similar to Heriot-Watt University's Edinburgh Business School.

"Clearly, there is potential to mislead or, at best, confuse the public, and the law as it currently stands does not offer legitimate colleges sufficient protection from rogue operators," Scotland's Colleges says.

Scottish Education Secretary Michael Russell has given his backing to its case. In a letter to Lord Wallace, he said the time was right "to make it unmistakeably clear to colleges that we pay them the same respect, and hold them in the same esteem, as universities".

neil.munro@tes.co.uk.

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