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UK: English FE colleges hit by visa curbs

New research commissioned by the government shows that restrictions on Tier 4 student visas (held by those studying a year or longer) have hit England’s public further education sector hard, resulting in lower student recruitment, lost income and course closures.

Overall income from Tier 4 tuition fees fell by 21% between 2010/11 and 2011/12

The research, conducted on behalf of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), was commissioned to gain a better understanding of the value overseas students bring to FE colleges and the national economy. However, it found that student visa reforms introduced since 2010 – such as mandatory credibility interviews for many non European Economic Area students and the reduction of part-time working hours – had hurt most colleges.

“One government policy is telling colleges find other ways of bringing in income…the other one is stopping them bringing them in”

“The increased restrictions to Tier 4 learners introduced in 2011 have led to an overall decrease in the number of Tier 4 learners,” states the report. “This has led to a loss of a significant amount of income for colleges from tuition fees, somewhat mitigated by rising fees per student, with a potential for further loss of income associated with learner’s subsistence costs.”

The report estimates that about 66% of England’s 255 FE colleges recruit Tier 4 students, however the total number has been steadily decreasing in the last few years. Overall income from Tier 4 tuition fees fell by 21% between 2010/11 and 2011/12, down from an estimated £52,699,986 to £41,632,989.

All colleges interviewed for the study noted that income from overseas students had become a vital part of their funding. And yet they complained that while they were being asked by BIS to diversify funding streams, Home Office visa reforms made maintaining and expanding the number of Tier 4 students increasingly difficult.

“FE colleges all have to remove their dependency on central funding,” one college international director is quoted as saying. “So, one government policy is telling colleges find other ways of bringing in income…the other one is stopping them bringing them in.”

Others complain about the lack of parity with the HE sector: unlike universities, FE colleges may not assess an overseas student’s English level themselves. Their students can also only work ten hours a week part time as opposed to twenty hours in the tertiary sector.

“Current government policies will have a significant long-term negative impact on the cultural and economic benefits which our sectors bring to the UK”

The effects extend beyond the financial, too. Four of seven colleges interviewed noted that having Tier 4 students had enabled them to offer courses that they would not have been able to offer otherwise – directly benefitting local students – however some had reduced the number of courses they offered since 2010 due to falling demand.

Study UK, which represents accredited private sector colleges, said the report highlighted how government policies were harming both public and private sectors.

“Study UK shares the concerns of public FE colleges that continuation of current government policies will have a significant long-term negative impact on the cultural and economic benefits which our sectors bring to the UK, as well as damaging the reputation of the UK among international students in an increasingly competitive marketplace.”

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