A crackdown on "bogus colleges" has created a "bias" against further education providers in the UK, leading to applications by international students dropping by a third in the past year, colleges have claimed.
Recently published figures reveal that the number of visa applications from non-European Union students sponsored by FE providers decreased by more than 11,000 (34 per cent) between 2012 and 2013. The contrast with mid-2011 is even starker, with applications falling by upwards of 90,000 (more than 80 per cent).
An official report by the Office for National Statistics reveals that prospective learners from "New Commonwealth" nations such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, as well as African countries including Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria, have been most severely affected by the changes.
The dramatic fall in applications to colleges has happened at a time when those to universities have increased. The trend has prompted concerns that Home Office moves to eradicate "bogus colleges" - private companies offering dubious qualifications in order to effectively sell visas to immigrants - have also had an adverse impact on genuine FE providers.
The Association of Colleges (AoC) estimated that the international student intake of its member colleges had dropped by about 10 per cent over the past year, with applicants from India facing particular problems.
John Mountford, the AoC's international director, told TES that there had been a significant increase in the number of sponsored visa applications being rejected after "credibility interviews" with immigration officials. Introduced in 2012 as part of the clampdown on rogue private colleges, these interviews involve applicants being formally questioned. "There seems to be a bias against vocational applicants, whereas those applying for institutions such as the Russell Group universities may get a more sympathetic ear," Mr Mountford said.
The number of failed applications could act as a deterrent to potential FE students, Mr Mountford added. "We don't want bogus students coming into the country, but we do want a fair, transparent system. It's the wrong message to send out. Lots of colleges have a good offer and strong international teams. For them to be shot in the foot is frustrating."
Colleges that hoped to generate income from overseas tuition fees in order to protect themselves from domestic funding cuts were also losing out, he added. "It's painful for them financially and it's painful for them educationally," he said.
Partly in response to the trend, some colleges have switched their strategic focus to establishing provision overseas, with countries such as India, China and Brazil proving to be particularly popular.
And it seems that overseas recruitment could be set to get even tougher: last week, immigration minister James Brokenshire called for the rules on visa applications to be toughened up. His proposals would result in about 70 higher and further education colleges losing their "highly trusted sponsor" status, according to the Home Office.
In a response to the AoC's concerns, a Home Office spokesman criticised the sector for failing to take adequate steps to protect genuine students. "The student visa regime we inherited was open to widespread abuse, particularly in the FE sector," he said. "It neither controlled immigration nor protected legitimate students from substandard sponsors.
"Our reforms have curbed abuse by closing bogus colleges, making the application process more rigorous and imposing more rules on colleges to improve course quality.
"We continue to welcome the brightest and the best students, and the latest statistics show visa applications from university students rose 7 per cent in the year ending December 2013."