Time for plain speaking

21st May 2004 at 01:00
Good to see the BBC Online consumer vigilantes weighing into the fake colleges again. They have just managed to cull the "Britain College of Management and Science - historical college in the city of London", which turned out to be mainly an answering service just inside the M25 and several sprauncy web pages.

Its website has vanished: no longer will starry-eyed overseas students read how its "long and distinguished history... its poets and politicians, its mathematicians and its music, have won the college a reputation for various distinction".

Its offer to consider "postgraduate" students by direct application and a deposit of pound;400 no longer entices. Its claims of medieval manuscripts in the library and tough debating in the "Graduate Parlour" need no longer be dangled before excited Brideshead-fanciers, nor the famous "BCMS Players" and the Winnie the Pooh Society.

That one was always on the wrong side of the law, fraudulently claiming an ability to offer degrees. But there are others, and there will be more; the British Council has warned that new bogus universities turn up every year to chisel hard-earned zlotys or koruna or roubles off aspirant foreign students. And beyond the wholly fake colleges and fake degrees, lesser but still pernicious minor frauds flourish.

It is hard to pin down quite why, but somehow there is a uniquely disgusting, uniquely nasty quality about fake educational opportunities.

Perhaps it is because the desire for education is such a high human one, such an honourable aspiration and one which our own cynical youth often seem to value rather less than they ought to. If someone trying to make a quick buck on dodgy timeshares or non-existent diamonds gets conned, I don't mind nearly so much as I do when an eager, innocent Somali or Bulgarian finds that there is no pot of enlightenment at the end of the Internet rainbow.

Education scams are as bad as pension scams, because both exploit people who are only trying to do something thoughtful and independent, and sacrificing other pleasures to achieve it.

One racket that grates especially is the Language College scam. This is perfectly legal, but brings on almost as hot a flush of shame as the totally bogus colleges. It seems to have been greatly assisted over the years by a niggling UK law regarding foreign students and au pairs. If you are signed up with a college you can stay in Britain for a limited period on a student visa, and legally work a set number of hours per week to support yourself.

Therefore, if you are a bright young person wishing to improve your English, in order to get a student visa you need a college to confirm that you are studying there. Any checks on the reality of this situation are trifling and easily wriggled out of; so are checks on the hours you work.

Before a hundred indignant English as a foreign languages teachers come round to break my windows, let me admit that some language colleges are perfectly good, effective, and professional. They charge fees which cover the cost of teaching and equipment, set exams and mentor students.

Many, however, pitch their charges at a cunningly almost-realistic bargain level, target the poorest of the new arrivals, and deliver precisely no value at all. As far as they are concerned, it is money for old rope.

Last year, before the merciful expansion of the EU to include his nation, one young Pole turned up starry-eyed at one of the cheaper "language schools" that abound in London W1 (they specially like being near Oxford Street or Cambridge Circus, in the hope that foreigners will think these names guarantee intellectual excellence).

He had learned English at school, done a degree, worked in an international office and listened tirelessly to BBC World Service. His English was great: it just needed a bit of chat to real vernacular speakers and a month watching the BBC news, and that would have done the trick.

However, to be allowed a visa he needed to be "studying" as well as doing low-paid sandwich-bar work for 20 (official) hours a week. So he signed on at a language "college", in a grimy room in central London, and found that the teacher was a Bosnian girl his own age who spoke rather less good English than he did, and held lower paper qualifications in it too.

The grade she was supposed to be teaching him was way beyond her. Other students found the same. So they told the school they would not be coming again, but wanted their attendance signed for. Which was done, without demur; for why should the school care? It had their pound;500 fees.

I don't know why it drives me so crazy, but it does. "String 'em up," I say. It's the only language they understand.

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