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UK FE brands Home Office reforms ‘unwarranted attack’

Professionals in the UK’s further education sector have slammed the Home Office’s reforms to student visa regulations, warning that the restrictive policy will affect the HE pipeline of international students planning to enrol and study at undergraduate level in the UK.

Britain's seat of government, the Houses of Parliament, seen behind Lambeth Bridge. Photo: Garry Knight.

“It is now time for all UK educators, irrespective of sector, to stand together with one strong, united voice"

New policy means that – as is the case for students enrolled at private institutions – there will be no part-time work rights available for students at colleges, while there will be no possibility of extending a study visa while in the UK for onward study (except where there are clear partnership agreements), which squashes the progression opportunities from A-level study and equivalent onto degree programmes onshore.

 

“This will be the second time in three months that we have had to write to all non-EU partners about significant changes to immigration policy”

Speaking with The PIE News, senior stakeholders questioned the suggestions of continued fraud that have prompted the changes.

“I really feel that there should be a challenge to the Home Office or UKVI to prove it,” said John Mountford, international director at the Association of Colleges, the UK’s representative body of state-funded FE colleges.

News of the revised policy is “a completely unwarranted attack on international work in FE colleges”, given strong compliance with existing regulations, according to Jessica Randall, head of international development at City College Plymouth.

“It’s very, very disappointing for those of us who’ve been working hard to recruit international students into our colleges,” she said, suggesting the government is “effectively saying we don’t really want FE colleges to be recruiting international students”.

And reducing the maximum term of an FE student visa from three to two years will restrict students’ access to the “entirely legitimate route” of completing a foundation course followed by a foundation degree, before continuing onto higher level study, even when agreed articulation routes exist.

“Education systems don’t exist in vacuums, and what stops students coming on level 3, 4 and 5 courses today ultimately stops them coming on level 6, 7 and 8 courses tomorrow,” Mountford observed, and warned that educators see a “gradual erosion of the foundation of the UK’s overseas student recruitment sector”.

“If there is this abuse, then [the government] should come out and say where it is and we can work together as a sector to remedy it,” he said. “To hide behind data we’re not privy to to build policy on makes it very difficult to challenge.”

The reforms have prompted fears over the UK’s global reputation. One anonymous source within the FE sector said she was concerned that colleges appear “unreliable and unstable regarding students”.

“This will be the second time in three months that we have had to write to all non-EU partners about significant changes to immigration policy but to give two weeks’ notice of the changes is massively damaging, as it is clearly insufficient notice to manage the changes properly,” she lamented.

There is real concern that what impacts FE today will hit HE in due course: “Two-thirds of international students at HE come via previous study in the UK… the pipeline income that supports most of UK HE will dry up.”

“The pipeline income that supports most of UK HE will dry up”

At English UK, Huan Japes explained, “Students preparing for university courses at a centre in the UK would, from November, have to leave the UK to apply for their university visa. This means many would choose the simpler option of applying to a different destination where they can either apply for a single visa to cover the whole period of study, or where they can apply for their university visa in-country.”

As stakeholders worked frantically to understand all the implications of new policy, Joy Elliot Bowman at Study UK explained that no tolerance for visa extension could also lead to real problems, such as students needing to remain in the country beyond two years to re-sit A-levels.

The reforms also widen the regulatory divide between FE and HE institutions, it has been noted. Randall pointed out: “The lumping of us together with private colleges… indicates a fundamental lack of understanding of what we are as state-funded government colleges, compared with private colleges.”

However, some private English language operators welcomed the fact the three-tiered approach to part-time work rights was now, at least, two-tiered.

Meanwhile, Peter Hayes, director of marketing & compliance at IH Manchester, urged educators to unite in calling for students to be removed from net migration figures and for “hard financial data that spans all sectors”.

“Whilst we all busy ourselves with pointing out how we are different, better, worse treated than the next sector, our message can be quietly ignored,” he said.

“I think that it is now time for all UK educators, irrespective of sector, be it state FE, universities, private FE, private schools and colleges, independent and boarding schools etc., who are being affected by the ever tightening rules and regulations coming from Theresa May via the Home Office, to stand together with one strong, united voice around one central common issue.”

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