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Visa threat to overseas roll

Plans to scrap appeals could see FE colleges lose business from abroad, reports Joseph Lee

Thousands of foreign students could be unjustly denied the chance to study in the UK if visa appeals are scrapped, colleges have warned.

As the immigration Bill had its second reading in the House of Commons last week, further education colleges joined with universities to oppose measures to deny students the right of appeal.

Overseas applicants, who have already faced steep increases in visa charges, will be put off studying in the UK, the Association of Colleges says.

The Home Office says the abolition of the 6,000 student visa appeals each year, along with appeals for work visas, is necessary to streamline the system and free up resources for human rights cases.

The AoC says there are about 100,000 overseas FE students in Britain, who bring in pound;80 million each year. At least 270 colleges now recruit students abroad following the Prime Minister's initiative in 1999, which encouraged FE to double its foreign student numbers in five years.

"It's not just about income, although the government view is sometimes that they're just a cash cow," said Jo Clough, the AoC's international policy manager.

"It widens the horizons of our own students, but it's also a very important part of a lot of colleges' funding strategies."

The plan to end appeals for students comes in the wake of a new charge for visa extensions of pound;300, while the cost of initial applications has more than doubled to pound;85. Some colleges are already reporting a fall in overseas applications for September, with the worst-affected suffering a 60 per cent reduction.

Colleges say entry clearance officers are advising students to take pre-degree programmes in their own country before coming to the UK, a move which directly affects FE.

"If there is a right of appeal, entry clearance officers have to think more seriously about whether they are making the right decision, because they can be held accountable," Ms Clough said.

Government figures show that one in four appeals succeeds.

At Broxtowe college, in Nottingham, there are 350 overseas students who provide income of pound;1.2m, but the figure has fallen by pound;500,000 in the past two years.

Chris Weekes, vice-principal and chairman of the AoC's international committee, said competition had increased at a time when Britain was making itself less competitive with increased charges and tougher rules.

"It's a double or triple whammy," he said, adding that applications from China -FE's biggest foreign market - have been particularly badly hit.

Bill Rammell, the minister for further and higher education, has said that visa price rises were necessary because the system had to pay for itself.

But he also voiced concern that overseas students should not be put off from applying to UK colleges by the messages sent out by the Government.

The Home Office says one in five overseas students is abusing the system.

Its own survey found evidence of false identities, bribery and students disappearing. But colleges say there is still no system for them to report students who fail to turn up or disappear.

A task force, including colleges, universities and the Government, is due to report on the issue at the end of summer.

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