Over here and under-employed
Anju Kaushik is probably better experienced than most to cope with the demands of the classroom. The 30-year-old physics teacher has a Bachelor of Education degree, a Masters in physics and two-and-a-half years experience taking classes of more than 50 pupils.
But Mrs Kaushik works in a Leicester textile factory as an overlocker and machinist because her qualifications are not recognised in this country, and her previous experience appears to count for little.
"It is very frustrating. My qualifications are from universities in India and I cannot get a job. I stopped applying eventually because I wasn't getting anywhere. It was always the same story."
Her experience is not unique. When Leicester City Council, with the Leicestershire Training and Enterprise Council, initiated a project to enable professionals from overseas to get their degrees accredited, they expected to have to help around 25 people. But more than 200 have signed up.
The project - Assessment and Accreditation of Adults with Qualifications from Overseas - is the brainchild of Daxa Pancholi, the economic development officer with Leicester City Council. "When I first joined the council," she says, " part of my job was to liaise with Asian women's groups. I discovered many women, and men, who were highly-qualified but working in low-paid, unskilled jobs because their qualifications were not recognised."
Many also faced funding problems. They could not finance their own studies and were ineligible for student grants because they hadn't been living in Britain long enough or didn't have the right residency status.
Ms Pancholi set up a working group with funding of Pounds 21,000 from the city council and the TEC to employ an overseas qualifications officer and an administrator. There was enough money left over to pay for the fees of the first 15 students who are taking modules or courses at De Montfort or Leicester Universities. Since then, an approach has been made to Loughborough University in an attempt to extend the diversity of course options.
Before they can be awarded a full British degree, most students need to complete year-long modules to complement their existing qualifications - although in some cases a two-year course may be necessary. By the next financial year, the group hopes to have gained additional funding through Section 11, the European Social Fund and the National Development Agency.
The standard of applicants has more than satisfied those tutors who have admitted overseas graduates. Dr Arthur Rowe, from Leicester University's National Centre for Macromolecular Hydrodynamics, is supervising 35-year-old Abdulmagid Parkar, a chemist from India, on a MSc course in biomolecular technology.
"We would certainly consider taking on overseas graduates again," he says. "We have found them to be competent and knowledgeable. And a department such as this is well integrated with British industry - this collaboration presents major benefits to students entering the jobs market."
Although most of the graduates originate from the Asian subcontinent, the project has also had inquiries from American, Bosnian, Thai, Iraqi and Chinese graduates. Among those currently looking for a university place is Marju Pold, a 34-year-old quantity surveyor who came to Britain from her native Estonia three years ago.
A graduate in civil engineering and economics from the Tallinn Technical University, Mrs Pold's one opportunity to work has been a stint of work experience at an importexport agency, for which she was paid Pounds 10 a week - barely sufficient to cover her travelling expenses. She now plans to do a building studies courses at De Montfort, in the hope that her existing degree will count for some of the modules.
Fifty-five-year-old Kirit Jethwa hopes to return full-time to a post as an architect. He has a BArch from Baroda University in India, and worked there in private practice for four years.
He came to Britain 22 years ago and worked at Leicestershire County Council as an assistant architect technician. But the post does not meet the demands of his training and qualifications, and Mr Jethwa feels resentful of others gaining credit for projects he has worked on.
"I played a major role in the refurbishment of an old people's home recently which was widely acclaimed. However, even though I put in much of the work, I was given no credit at all. It is not that I want praise, but it gets frustrating when you have done a good job and someone else gets the credit simply because you are not qualified."
Mr Jethwa plans to do a year-long course in professional practice so that his degree and experience can be formally accredited. "Architects do not really retire, do they? They have no need to. So I will carry on and do the course. The overseas qualification recognition project has made me feel very motivated again."
Daya Kaniapan, overseas qualifications officer with the project, says there is no central organisation to which people can turn - "nor are there any universal guidelines as to the value of overseas degrees.
"It appears that 70 per cent of them are considered to be the equivalent in academic value to the completion of the first-year of an A-level course, yet there is no way of measuring this. Consequently, when overseas applicants seek work or to gain further qualifications in this country, it is up to individual employers and institutions to decide whether they recognise their previous qualifications."
Ms Pancholi says that when the project was first advertised, inquiries came from as far afield as London and Scotland. "We had to refer those people back to their own authorities because we were not in a position to help them. But a number of authorities have since contacted us to find out how we have done it. We appear to have started a project which has become something of a pilot nationwide."