Colleges protest over visa 'misunderstanding'
College principals say immigration minister's remark about visas reveals lack of insight into further education
Monday 4 October 2010 16.30 BST
Recent blunt comments by the immigration minister, Damian Green, that international students applying for further education courses “may, or frankly may not be the brightest and the best” has sparked a furious lobbying effort by principals of the UK's larger colleges, who claim the minister needs to update his understanding of what further education is all about.
Members of the 157 Group say they are offended and bewildered at the implication they take from Green's remarks, which is that their non-EU intake contains second-rate students who use FE as a front for bogus visa applications. The upset has been prompted by the government's wish to impose further visa restrictions on those wanting to come to the UK to study.
Green's position is that the candidates he wants to attract and those the immigration system should help are “the world's best students”, whom he defines as those wanting to pursue their education at one of the UK's elite universities.
Cause for concern
Green's remarks about the variability of what is on offer at the FE institutions that attract large numbers of fee-paying international students to the country, taken together with his conclusion that not “every student visa issued is necessarily benefiting Britain”, has caused concern that vocationally oriented non-EU students will be discriminated against. Principals are dismayed by what they feel is Green's failure to grasp what FE colleges offer, and why their difference from universities is so attractive to about 66,000 foreign students every year.
“It's very difficult to guide and assist ministers to understand further education,” says Bradford College's principal, Michele Sutton. “Many people in politics or the civil service have not experienced FE and their children don't either. We believe that the best of people often come to colleges like ours … and I do think we provide an environment that gets people ready for work and gives them the knowledge and skills they need to get a job or build a career.”
It's misguided to think that colleges don't recruit the brightest and the best, she says, and if the minister would like to visit her college to see for himself, he'd be very welcome. “We don't think students get a lesser experience or a lesser qualification and we don't believe they're worse quality students. We've had students who've gone on to make a massive impact, not just on their families and communities but also on the wider world.”
Despite FE's record in training people for highly skilled vocational jobs, there is still a lingering sense that further education is for people who are not quite top flight, complains Angela O'Donoghue, principal of City of Sunderland College and international spokesperson for the 157 Group of large colleges.
“With regard to international students, we are teaching technician level skills; telecommunications, travel and tourism, IT hardware and software and technical engineering,” she says. “Our graduates are the people who can keep factories running and that's what a lot of developing countries are looking for. That's the difference, that's what FE specialises in. We teach skills that employers want.”
It's not just what countries with developing economies want: it's what the UK needs too, says Russell Strutt, principal of Central Sussex College. “I don't think he [Green] understands how an FE college turns an international student into someone who gains the skills to support our local businesses, which simply can't fill all their vacancies from the indigenous population,” he says. “We're not acting as houses for illegal immigration we're training people up to drive the local economy. In our area, the need is not just for academic graduates but for demanding, technical subjects.”
There is indignation too. Recent tightening of visa requirements has meant that all colleges that wish to recruit non-EU students have had to jump through hoops to gain Highly Trusted sponsor status with the UK Border Agency, O'Donoghue explains. “I don't understand why we've had to go through that process and put all the effort and staff time in if we're going to have difficulties with visas afterwards,” she says. “Our students don't disappear. We keep registers, we know where everyone is, and if a student doesn't turn up we ring them and find out what's happened.”
This level of monitoring and pastoral care is a distinctive element of FE that universities don't undertake, so why, principals wonder, should the government assume FE colleges provide a cover for students who arrive on false pretences and then slope off? “If the government is concerned about the number of people who finish a qualification, whether FE or HE, and then stay on, that is not a problem of FE,” says Sutton. “Their visa at an FE college is for the length of their course. As a college, we are not bogus: we were created by statute and we are publicly funded, inspected and audited.”
Further education colleges with Highly Trusted sponsor status have received no reassurances from the government regarding any protection for international applicants needing visas. For the larger colleges with higher numbers of non-EU students, a big cut in foreign students threatens an important income stream. Bradford College, for instance, gets 3m out of an annual income of 60m from its international cohort. In Sunderland, O'Donoghue says the financial implications aren't limited to fees but would reduce the money foreign students spend in the community.
“I estimate foreign students' total contribution to the FE sector at around 130m, and that helps us to do what we're being told to do to be less reliant on public funding,” she says, pointing out that non-EU students' fees contribute directly to improving facilities for UK students.
It's not just the threat to their bank balances that principals are concerned about. “Culturally, it's vital that our UK students have the chance to mix with international students,” says John Mountford, international director at the Association of Colleges.
Although Cornwall College, for instance, recruits only around 60 non-EU students each year, its principal, Dave Linnell, says that in a highly rural area where many of his students are studying close to home, the perspective they bring is enormously valuable to the life of the college and to students' abilities to operate successfully in the increasingly internationally focused world of work.
On top of all that, say colleges, FE graduates form a significant part of the intake of universities, which recruit heavily from the FE sector. English language support and college HNDs and foundation degrees can be a stepping stone for international students to pursue a degree at university.
Will international students be put off applying to college in the UK if they think they won't get visas? “I hope not,” says Mountford. “But of course it's a concern. Students want to feel they're studying in a country where they feel welcome.”