Level the playing field for private providers

The state must reinstate working rights for all overseas students, argues William Hunt

August 1, 2013

The Home Office seems blind to the added value that the private sector brings to the UK’s lucrative export market in education

It is now more than two years since Theresa May, the home secretary, announced a set of regulations aimed at cracking down on bogus colleges.

The rules required all private colleges to have “highly trusted sponsor” status with the UK Border Agency and to be reviewed by the Quality Assurance Agency. Legitimate private higher education providers embraced the regulations.

However, several Home Office restrictions unfairly disadvantage the legitimate private higher education sector, and this is a growing concern. They exist despite the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ stated intention to level the playing field between private and public providers (a policy one might expect from a Conservative-led government).

For example, overseas students attending private colleges are required to sit approved English-language tests. While our international cohorts have to pay for, take and pass secure English-language tests such as IELTS, students attending public institutions do not: this is left to the discretion of the universities.

And there are further discrepancies in the areas of doctoral programmes, postgraduate dependants, work placements and pre-degree courses.

But the most unfair and damaging difference in the regulations is that students attending private colleges, unlike those at publicly funded institutions, can no longer work part-time during their studies or full-time during holidays. This is a particularly curious quirk given that in many cases, private students are studying for precisely the same degree – awarded by precisely the same institution – as their university counterparts.

The importance of this issue to international students is exemplified by the recent Hobsons survey Competing Globally. It found that the ability to work while studying is a key influence on potential international students’ decisions about whether or not to study in the UK. Through this regulation, the government has therefore given the publicly funded sector a huge commercial advantage over its private rival – and the consequences have been devastating.

As some in the private sector have floundered, many publicly funded universities have moved in to capitalise on the resulting gap in the international student market, taking over struggling legitimate independent colleges or opening branch campuses in London. The universities of Liverpool and Loughborough are just the latest examples to do the latter, a trend that is likely to continue for as long as the playing field remains tilted in the public sector’s favour.

Universities’ opportunism here undermines the Home Office’s justification for its different treatment of the sectors. In its response to the BIS select committee’s report Overseas Students and Net Migration, the government states that ending “the abuse of the student migrant route” is “a key part” of realising the government’s commitment to reduce net migration.

But in the same document, the government also says that the Home Office regulations are already “allowing no opportunity for bogus colleges to operate in the UK”. Indeed, May recently stated that such institutions have been “closed down”.

By continuing to treat the legitimate private sector unfairly, the government is merely redirecting genuine students to publicly funded universities. The hope that further reductions in net migration will be achieved in this way is clearly unrealistic.

There are other areas in which regulations governing home students are unfair, including rules on tuition fees, regulatory fees and access to funding. In these cases, however, the imbalance has been acknowledged by the universities and science minister David Willetts and his team, and their expressed aim is to rebalance the situation over time.

Unfortunately, the Home Office seems blind to the added value that the independent sector brings to the UK’s lucrative export market in education. This is a grave mistake.

It is high time that the government reinstated working rights for genuine international private students so that fair competition can prevail.

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