MPs reveal monitoring of bogus colleges has lapsed for two years
Successive governments' commitment to dealing with bogus colleges has been called into question after MPs revealed a key element in monitoring private providers has been allowed to lapse for nearly two years.
The home affairs select committee was told that the two accrediting bodies for private colleges had been operating since 2009 without any authority from the UK Border Agency.
Tony Millns, chief executive of language-teaching body English UK, told the committee that the Government was aware of the problem - when asked what they had done about it, Mr Millns replied: "Nothing, in fact."
In a report published last week, the committee recommended that there should be a single new accrediting body to ensure consistency.
Association of Colleges (AoC) chief executive Martin Doel said the new body should be equivalent in its rigour to Ofsted to ensure private colleges sponsoring international students meet appropriate educational standards.
The AoC has been calling for better regulation of private colleges, including protection for the term "college", because it believes bogus operations damage the reputation of the publicly funded sector.
AoC international director John Mountford told the committee in evidence: "I think of all the sectors, we get hit hardest by bogus providers because our courses can get easily confused. So for all the sectors, we are probably the keenest for the UK to get its house in order, if you like, because it will protect good practitioners like FE colleges and it will protect genuine students, which must be good for all of us."
Universities minister David Willetts told the committee in evidence that good progress had been made on eliminating bogus providers.
He said: "I think that picture of a kind of PO box with absolutely no education activity going on, or a single room above a fish and chip shop as the bogus college . I think the effective action by the UK Border Agency has made great progress in eliminating those."
The select committee report was launched after the UK Border Agency launched a consultation on restricting courses at level 3 or A-level equivalent to highly trusted sponsors such as publicly funded colleges. It also suggested that courses below level 3 could be eliminated altogether from visa eligibility.
Mr Doel said there was concern from colleges about the impact of such a "blanket restriction".
"The qualifications that colleges deliver at level 3 and below are recognised as being world-class," he said. "Many countries seek out those qualifications and it would be unnecessary and unhelpful to preclude that level of study within the country."
Mr Doel said that other countries were already getting the impression "that the UK is not open for business in this area and that it is a very difficult place to access training".
Shadow FE minister Gordon Marsden said: "The findings from the home affairs select committee echo our view that by far and away the best way in cracking down on bogus colleges is through highly trusted sponsor status, which FE organisations have led the way taking forward."
A UK Border Agency spokesman said: "One of the areas we have been looking at as part of the student consultation is how we can tighten the accreditation system. We are working with other Government departments to achieve this.
"The original arrangement with these accreditation bodies covered a two- year period, which has now lapsed. However they are continuing to provide this service."