Late last year, Theresa May, the home secretary, announced measures designed to help the government meet its target of reducing the number of non-EU migrants entering the UK. Noting that the majority of non-EU migrants were students, she warned that the government proposed to reform the way in which they are admitted under the Tier 4 (student tier) arrangements of the points-based immigration system. Now the UK Border Agency (UKBA) is consulting the sector on a range of issues connected with this proposed reform.
But at a meeting I attended recently at the Home Office, it was made clear that the government has other plans about which it proposes to consult very little, if at all.
At present, further education and higher education institutions that are not members of the Quality Assurance Agency must gain a form of migration-related accreditation in order to be "licensed" to sponsor Tier 4 students. This accreditation is carried out by five private agencies approved by the UKBA - Accreditation UK, the Accreditation Body for Language Services, the Accreditation Service for International Colleges, the British Accreditation Council and the Church of England Ministry Division.
The UKBA says there is substantial abuse of the Tier 4 route by bogus students who gain visas to study at private institutions. It has determined that the easiest way to meet the government's migration target is to prune the number of institutions licensed in this way by about 200 (roughly 10 per cent); reform the immigration-accreditation structure; and profile non-EU students so as to facilitate the exclusion of students from certain national - and, as I read it, ethnic - backgrounds.
It is certainly true that significant numbers of bogus students enter the UK through Tier 4. But is this mainly the fault of the private sector? A recent UKBA study alleged that privately funded higher and further education institutions have the highest proportion of "non-compliant" students - 26 per cent as compared with 8 per cent at publicly funded establishments. But the study also notes that "these percentages should be considered the maximum potential estimate of non-compliance, as the coverage for those leaving the UK and the focus of roll-call investigations mean that the actual levels of non-compliance are likely to be lower".
Indeed they are. Moreover, taxpayer-funded universities are obliged to report international student enrolments only three times a year; there is virtually no way in which the UKBA can verify periodic "interactions" between students and teaching staff at these institutions.
The UKBA maintains that public-sector institutions are "accredited" - for immigration purposes - by the QAA. This fiction was born of an agreement between the UKBA and the sector that taxpayer-funded universities should not have to undergo specific inspection and licensing if the QAA considers them to be "in good standing". But since the agenda of a QAA audit has nothing to do with UKBA Tier 4 requirements, this is nonsense. For instance, the QAA does not carry out unannounced spot-checks.
The UKBA believes that the relationship between the five Tier 4 accrediting bodies and the institutions they accredit is too cosy. Accordingly, it is determined to reform their remit and number - but this does not form part of the current consultation. It seems that the UKBA does not (if it can help it) propose to consult at all on what it intends to do. There is apparently some pressure from within the UKBA to do away with the accrediting bodies altogether and transfer their work to Ofsted.
Something that does figure in the current consultation is the UKBA's wish to "differentiate" between "lower risk" and "higher risk" students. What does this mean? Numerous references to "nationality" give a clue. The proposal is to profile student applicants based on their national background - and, I would argue, racial or ethnic background; the UKBA has made it clear that such an approach "is likely to require an exemption from the Race Relations Act".
State-sanctioned racism - for this is what the proposal amounts to - has no place in the British education system. It is shameful that the suggestion should even have been made.