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'Visa changes have made UK colleges more expensive and less attractive to international students'

The Association of Colleges' director of international policy asks why government policy appears to restrict FE's recruitment of international students

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It is now six months since the Home Office’s introduction of a raft of new rules aimed at restricting recruitment of international students and colleges are starting to feel the impact.

One of the changes to the Tier 4 visa law was around the number of approved secure English language tests (SELTs) and test centres. This has resulted in international students who want to study at a UK college having to travel long distances to take their exam. This has undoubtedly made taking a course at a UK college more expensive and, globally, less attractive.

There are justifiable concerns about malpractice in some SELT test centres, as revealed by a BBC Panorama investigation, but the legislation to remedy it has hit the FE sector particularly hard as, unlike universities, colleges are not afforded the opportunity to administer their own English language assessment. This is despite there being no evidence to suggest that FE colleges were involved in any way with the illegal practices exposed in some private exam centres. This change is also compounded by the removal of the child visa route, which allowed younger students to study in the UK without the extra barriers presented by taking an official SELT exam. This has had the biggest effect on sixth form colleges’ ability to recruit international students.

We have also seen the restriction of courses that are beneath degree level to two years. This means that students who have taken valuable internship placements as part of an A level or higher national diploma are now missing out on this important course ingredient because it puts them over that limit. It also means that extra English language modules that directly contribute to students’ success are also unavailable to international students. Finally, it also restricts the movement of students from one FE programme to another – such as going from A levels onto a higher level of technical or professional study, which in many cases represents a legitimate and valuable progression route.

Students who have studied at a college now have to return home at the end of their course to reapply for a visa to continue their studies in the UK. This creates a significant break between a level 3 programme, such as A levels, and progression onto university. This has naturally made some international students nervous about choosing the college route to university and has made them look towards other study routes or destinations.

Inbuilt bias

Colleges also continue to face challenges from what appears an inbuilt bias by entry clearance officers against students choosing a vocational study route. This has manifested itself in a number of visa refusals which are hard to understand or justify. The extra challenge with these decisions is the associated ramifications that visa refusals have for colleges’ Tier 4 sponsorship status. The frustration the FE sector feels about these changes is acute. Colleges take their work as sponsors extremely seriously and have robust and effective systems to monitor student attendance and performance. It is very hard to understand and accept why our government is so determined to restrict a sector with such a commitment to compliant international work. AoC has long argued for a fairer system that rewards Tier 4 institutions on the quality of their sponsorship work rather than their sector.

The real tragedy in all this is that the UK has a world class further education offering that many genuine international students want to join. These students make a significant contribution to college life; their fees help to finance programmes and jobs that benefit the whole college community, they add a global dimension to our home students’ learning experience and they make a major contribution to the cultural richness of the colleges they study in and the communities they serve.

Despite the challenges it is important to note that colleges are resilient, adaptable and hugely committed to their international students and partners.The UK's FE sector is still very much open for business and will continue to value and appreciate the students from around the world who want to study with us. Even if, at times, it appears that our government doesn’t.

John Mountford is director of international policy at the Association of Colleges

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