New border authority rules have left the sector with a widening income gap
Institutions across Scotland’s further education sector are preparing to experience the true cost of a squeeze on public funding this autumn as students return for a new term. However, a host of colleges throughout the country are gearing up for a double financial blow as strict new immigrations standards leave them unable to recruit lucrative overseas students.
New rules enforced by the UK Border Agency (UKBA) as part of a radical overhaul of the student visa system has left the sector in Scotland staring at a widening and indeed worrying income gap ahead of this year’s intake.
Discussions designed to stave off the disconcerting outcome are ongoing, Cabinet Secretary for Education, Michael Russell, has told Holyrood, albeit hopes of a resolution in time for August are growing slimmer with every day.
Under the changes, colleges throughout the UK are complied to meet six mandatory requirements to retain a Highly Trusted Sponsor (HTS), a status necessary to bring in non-EEA students. However, failure by a number of institutions north of the Border to meet the standards set by April this year has prompted a six-month limbo until an application can be resubmitted, leaving the coffers in a state of uncertainty.
Affected students who saw their host institution removed from the UKBA Register of Sponsors were threatened with forced removal inside 60 days unless a new sponsor could be found. Fears over the ability of some existing students to complete last month’s round of examinations after sponsors were stripped of their license appear to have been allayed, though, amid a delay in the revocation period kicking in.
Russell told Holyrood: “We’ve been very active in support of the colleges, making it clear that we think this is completely unnecessary. The colleges are good, well-established colleges. They’re being treated shabbily, frankly, by the UKBA. This has been a recurring problem, not just with colleges but with the difficulties that universities have.”
Unsurprisingly, institutions remain reluctant to disclose details of sponsor status for fear of reputational repercussions, while UKBA maintains a wall of silence on the outcome of applications unless colleges come clean in public. However, Scotland’s Colleges has confirmed to Holyrood fewer than half – 17 out of a total of 41 members – are classified as an HTS sponsor, while a further 14 are able to recruit on a limited basis.
Among those absent entirely from the latest Register of Sponsors published on June 29 are Glasgow-based pair Cardonald and Stow College.
Cardonald in the south-west of Glasgow, which last year saw 41 students from outside the UK and Europe, stands to lose £300,000 as a result of the revocation, while Stow, with a much larger international population of around 150, could be facing a loss climbing beyond the million pound mark.
“It’s not just the number [of colleges] that’s bad enough, not all colleges take substantial numbers of students outside the EU,” added Russell. “It is actually what the UKBA is saying to these colleges, which is we don’t trust you.
These are professional college managements who are essentially trying to provide opportunities. I don’t think the UKBA has any right to say that to them.
“We do a lot of work with the colleges, we’re supporting them, we’re taking part in discussions with them, we’re making representations for them.” Asked if a solution could be sought in sufficient time for the 2012-13 academic year getting underway, he added: “We would want it to change in that timescale but I have to say the onus is on the UKBA to operate in a way that I think is reasonable and rational and I don’t see them operating in that way at the present moment. There is continuous dialogue going on and we will continue to have that dialogue.”
A session organised by Scotland’s Colleges and led by solicitors specialising in Tier 4 along with the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA) took place at Paisley’s Reid Kerr College at the end of May, inviting international officers across the FE sector to pour over compliance issues coupled with recent changes to guidance.
Amid warnings from Scotland’s Colleges Chief Executive, John Henderson, that compliance with UKBA rules on international students remains of “major concern” for members, the umbrella body has urged the UK Government to commit to a review before the full extent of a regionalisation agenda north of the Border is realised.
Henderson told Holyrood: “We’ve had a number of constructive discussions with the UKBA, Scottish and UK Ministers on this issue. We’ve been working to support our members in providing training and advice sessions on a system which has changed numerous times since its introduction to ensure they are as well equipped as possible to comply with the rules.
“As the sector works towards regionalisation, it will be important that the UKBA consider the impact of the rules on the new institutions. We want to see the UK Government carry out a thorough review of this policy.
“Ultimately, we believe education institutions should be removed from net migration statistics. Those who come here to study tend to stay for the duration of their course, benefiting from and adding to Scottish culture.”
Holyrood understands new concerns have now emerged, however, over students paired with another sponsor. Following revocation, non-EEA students are required to submit a fresh application to secure a Tier 4 visa to study in the UK, carrying with it a renewed requirement to provide proof of funds once again to cover course fees and living costs.
“They will need to show that they meet the requirements in place at the time that they submit that application,” said a UKBA spokesman. “These will be different for each student and they are advised to check the guidance and provide evidence according to their individual circumstances.”
He added: “A college will have its sponsor licence revoked if it fails to meet the standards required in order to attain Highly Trusted Status, which all Tier 4 sponsors were required to have by April 2012.
“Colleges licensed to bring in international students must ensure that the students are attending the course for which they are enrolled and that they are complying with the requirements of the immigration rules. Where the UK Border Agency finds evidence that sponsors are not fulfilling their duties we will suspend or remove their licence.
“The UK Border Agency is committed to working with the education sector and as such we regularly meet and discuss issues with them, whilst ensuring they are fully informed of any relevant changes that may effect how they operate.”