PM's overseas student snipe makes waves

27th November 2009 at 00:00
Comment: Alan Thomson

It is tempting to imagine that attached to the wall of every government department is a sledgehammer encased in glass bearing the words "break in case of emergencies". What else could explain the apparent readiness of the Government to resort to indiscriminate and disproportionate force to crack troublesome nuts?

Admittedly, illegal immigration is a tough nut and one that needs cracking. But it appears that the Home Office hammer might fall on colleges which, if one follows the logic in Gordon Brown's comments on the matter, are flush with bogus students (page 1).

Those abusing their study visas are more likely to be on shorter courses below degree level, according to Mr Brown. By contrast, he says, universities offer quality courses to foreign students who contribute to those universities, the research base and economy. Mr Brown might as well have said universities are made of sugar and spice and all things nice while colleges are made of snips and snails and puppy dogs' tails.

To praise universities while hinting at problems with sub-degree provision, without so much as a mention of the work colleges do in educating 60,000 legitimate overseas students a year, is unsettling for colleges.

Colleges, which are redoubling their efforts to diversify income in the face of dwindling public funding, stand to lose pound;30 million. To effectively prevent or make it harder for colleges to recruit overseas is disastrous. There are bogus colleges set up deliberately to make money by people trafficking just as there are legitimate providers delivering high- quality education to overseas students. Hopefully, sense will prevail but Mr Brown and the Home Office are yet to draw that vital distinction.

Part of the problem lies in defining a college, as anyone can set one up. By contrast, if you want to call your business a "university" you must jump through more hoops than a Florida dolphin. That is as it should be. The reputations and standards associated with our educational institutions must be protected at all costs and, at present, colleges are afforded nothing like the protection given to universities.

Department for Business, Innovation and Skills minister Kevin Brennan told the Commons' home affairs committee in the summer he would look into restricting the use of the title "college". It remains unprotected. As long as the situation persists, legitimate colleges remain exposed to the vagaries of Government by sledgehammer.

Alan Thomson, Editor, FE Focus; Email: alan.thomson@tsleducation.com.

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