Lucy Ward reports on an Association for Colleges' warning that benefit changes may jeopardise budgets. Colleges in London are heading for severe cash problems under toughened benefit rules which can force refugee students out of education.
Thousands of asylum-seekers currently on college rolls in the capital are expected to withdraw in the next academic year because their course fees will no longer be subsidised. Hundreds more will be unable to start courses.
A new survey by the Association for Colleges says institutions with a significant proportion of refugee students could be left high and dry by an overnight exodus. In several colleges, one in 10 students is an asylum-seeker, while in one case the proportion is nearly one in five.
The report warns: "The finance position of a number of London colleges may be jeopardised."
Colleges feared being hit in the next academic year as a result of a change in social security rules which came into force last February. The policy was declared illegal by the Court of Appeal two weeks ago, but the Government this week pushed through emergency amendments to overturn the ruling.
Under the regulations, asylum-seekers entering in this country were denied benefits unless they applied for refugee status immediately at the port or airport. A House of Lords amendment to the Bill this week extends the period of grace to three days, but refugee groups believe many genuine asylum-seekers will still be caught out.
Since the Further Education Funding Council only remits fees of students on state benefits, colleges can no longer claim funding for those asylum-seekers - still the majority - who apply late and forfeit state support.
Instead, those refugees are treated like any other overseas student, who would normally be charged full fees for part-time courses.
Colleges say most asylum-seekers, already denied benefits, will have no hope of finding the cash they need to take courses in English and other skills to help them survive and find work. Cash-strapped institutions will be unable to bail out all those affected from their own coffers.
The AFC has called on the FEFC to adjust its funding system to include fee remission for all students whose income is low enough to qualify them for benefit, even those refugees who may not be permitted to claim.
Funding chiefs are negotiating with the Department for Education and Employment on the issue, though they are expected to make little headway. However, the FEFC has agreed to consider looking leniently on shortfalls on enrolments for 1996-97 which can be clearly linked to a loss of refugee students.
The AFC survey, which gained responses from 19 out of 31 London region colleges, found most did not record asylum-seekers separately from other students. However, broad figures suggest refugees make up about 6 per cent of the capital's FE students.
The study predicts a "serious loss of enrolments" for London colleges if benefits continue to be withdrawn, beginning with courses in English for speakers of other languages but spreading to other programmes.