Visa issues at heart of problem

Universities must take responsibility for oversight of international students – an arm’s-length approach is no protection

July 3, 2014

Arm’s-length arrangements are often put in place to protect from contagion should things go wrong, while franchise and validation arrangements are used to stretch the reach of a brand with minimal effort.

The use of both in higher education has been brought into the spotlight by the decision to strip three universities and 57 private colleges of their right to recruit overseas students.

The threat of such a purge has been present for some time, particularly since revelations by the BBC’s Panorama programme about systematic fraud in some English language testing centres.

Indeed, the collective sigh of relief from the universities not named by immigration minister James Brokenshire on 24 June is likely to have registered on the Beaufort scale.

The collective sigh of relief from the universities not named by immigration minister James Brokenshire is likely to have registered on the Beaufort scale

One wonders how many vice-chancellors can be 100 per cent certain that they are on safe ground over visa compliance.

If, as one suspects, the answer is “not many”, it is down in part to the scale of the overseas student market and the disjointed complexity of the visa system, but also the now sector-wide reliance on international fee income and the pressure it brings to bear.

Universities have previously faced criticism over the use of unscrupulous recruitment agents; this time it is English language testing and partnerships with private colleges that are in the spotlight. In both areas, part of the problem is that universities are not personally responsible for delivery.

Taken at face value, there is no reason for a university to doubt an international student who shows up with a certificate proving they have sufficient English language skills to study.

But a university will quickly discover if a student does not, in fact, have the ability they claim (or – a more nuanced point – if those skills are often too rudimentary to enable genuine engagement with their studies, as is suggested in our opinion pages this week).

The charge is that universities that accept such students, and that fail to take action once they arrive, are likely to be failing in their other duties as sponsors, not to mention as educators.

The crisis also revives long-standing questions about the proliferation of partnership arrangements, highlighting the risks if a partner using a university’s name is found wanting.

Study UK, which represents private colleges, has expressed concern that “the accelerating proliferation of new collaborative agreements since 2011 may include a number of ‘arm’s-length’ arrangements for which the due diligence undertaken was not sufficient”.

It added that all partnerships must have an academic as well as a commercial rationale.

It’s an obvious point, but one worth reiterating, and it is no real surprise that the Home Office is also focusing its attention on the growing number of London branch campuses, whose primary aim is to tap into Londoncentric demand from overseas.

The fact is that universities can no longer afford not to chase the overseas market, but the risks of getting it wrong are also clear.

Universities cannot ignore those risks or assume that an arm’s-length partnership protects them – they must employ the same vigilance and quality control for every student who comes through their door or a door sponsored by them, while the Quality Assurance Agency must provide the robust, reliable oversight the sector needs.

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