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UK: FE sector needs differentiation, supportive policy

The UK’s FE sector feels treated like a second tier of provider, despite the fact it is a government-regulated (and often government-funded) sector conforming to strict guidelines.

Bharat Pamnani from UKVI. The figures say it all: the FE sector along with ELT providers has been hit hardest . Photo: The PIE News

A new government meant new opportunity for AoC members to liaise with the government on policy and its impact

This was the message gently yet forcefully delivered to UKVI by John Mountford, AoC’s International Director, in what proved to be the clash of the conference last week. “Sponsors should not be defined by their sector,” Mountford challenged.

AoC’s members are also grappling with concerns about new burdens of compliance since rules changed on April 6. Disquiet about the tools of accreditation being used to determine sponsor licence was also noted.

Along with ELT providers, the FE sector has seen international student applications nosedive, as illustrated in a presentation by UKVI’s Bharat Pamnani. Sponsored study visa applications in the FE sector dropped from 32,406 in 2012 to 19,365 in 2014.

“Sponsors should not be defined by their sector”

Further rule changes since April 6 and confusion over availability of Secure English Language Tests are continuing to hamper the UK FE sector’s ability to recruit international students, delegates stated.

And Rebecca Hughes, Director of Education at the British Council, received support for her position that the word “college” has been tarnished since multiple colleges lost their licence to recruit internationally, and some “clear water” was now needed for the sector.

Pamnani, responding to Mountford’s challenge, indicated that the multiple licence revocations at colleges following an investigation that began in 2014 had been necessary – most of those colleges affected were not AoC members.

He and Hughes both acknowledged that “differentiation” for colleges within the FE space was a proposition that could be explored.

Pamnani underlined the government remains committed to prevention of immigration abuse, however a new government meant new opportunity for AoC members to liaise with the government on policy and its impact.

Screen Shot 2015-06-19 at 14.27.25And he countered the claim that availability of SELT tests – the range of exams and test centres defined as SELT was restricted in February – is a problem, stating that there were overseas test centres in “most major cities” and quarterly pop-up centres, with a 28-day turnaround policy.

“In Japan, a country of 125 million people, there are only two places where you can take a SELT”

However, speaking with The PIE News, Mark Allen, International Manager at Sussex Downs College, said that the fact only IELTS tests at limited test centres were accepted by UKVI (for below-degree level study applications) contributed to a perception that the UK was increasingly difficult to access.

“In Japan, a country of 125 million people, there are only two places where you can take a SELT – that either means you need to be prepared to fly or take the bullet train [and many students] are not going to do that,” he outlined.

Allen said he believed the combination of new rules ushered in in April might have led to a tipping point for the industry.

“Each time we change the policy it makes it harder for our partners and agents to work with us,” he said. “It has taken them several years to redirect their business and they are now doing that.”

He pointed to the new £150 health levy for long-term students – which Pamnani revealed would be embedded into the visa process from July – and new rules requiring students to obtain Biometric Residence Permits (BRPs) as just more changes making the UK seem uninterested in welcoming international students.

“There is no way we are encouraging ‘the brightest & the best’ and it’s just not true that we are giving that impression,” he said.

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