At the end of March, the UK Border Agency and its political mistress, home secretary Theresa May, announced a series of policy directives intended to amount to a revolution, not only in the handling of applications from foreign students wishing to study in the UK (under Tier 4 of the points-based system), but also in the relationship between the higher-education sector and the British state. The full effects of these initiatives have yet to be tested, but we can already appreciate, at least in outline, the shape and likely impact of this new relationship.
In pursuit of a political objective to drastically reduce non-European Union immigration, the Home Office identified Tier 4 students attending private-sector institutions as the softest target. Publicly, the decision was declared to be based on statistical evidence suggesting that a much higher percentage of such students were "non-compliant" than was the case with those admitted to taxpayer-funded establishments. Evidence to the contrary was brushed aside - notably a report published last February by the Institute for Public Policy Research, which demonstrated, inter alia, that the difference in non-compliance between the public and private sectors was much less than the UKBA professed, and that the private figure quoted by the agency was in any case derived from institutions already under investigation.
Why was this evidence brushed aside? Mainly because it did not suit the political objective the coalition government had in mind. But there were two other considerations that came into play.
The first was that, in spite of claims that it was going to be even-handed in its treatment of the private and public sectors, the UKBA had no intention of doing so. Thus, for example, in her Commons statement of 22 March, Ms May announced the government's intention to "end permission to work during term time for all (international) students other than those at university and publicly funded FE colleges".
The second consideration was that it was going to be easier to clamp down on the private sector. When the Tier 4 regulations were first promulgated, it was announced that to sponsor students higher education institutions would need to be licensed by the UKBA, and that such licences would be granted only following specific immigration-related accreditation carried out by a limited number of approved agencies - principally the British Accreditation Council and the Accreditation Service for International Colleges. But lobbying by the public sector secured its exemption from this irksome requirement. Thus, no institution in membership of, and in "good standing" with, the Quality Assurance Agency or Ofsted needs to bother with such accreditation.
In relation to higher education institutions, the excuse given by the UKBA is that QAA academic review is sufficient. Be that as it may, under orders from the home secretary the UKBA has told the immigration-related accrediting bodies that their services are no longer required. What, then, are private institutions to do? They cannot be accredited by Ofsted, since it can only deal with taxpayer-funded entities. They could apply to join the QAA, but such applications would depend on a number of factors (including the size of the institution) that have nothing to do with the quality of provision.
For the publicly funded academy, all this is good news. The UKBA hopes (and appears to have calculated) that a significant number of private providers, soon to be without valid accreditation and the coveted "highly trusted" status that goes with it, will shut up shop. Others - a privileged few - may be able to persuade the universities with which they collaborate to "sponsor" Tier 4 students on their behalf; but this will surely come at a price. The QAA, meanwhile, has announced a new inspection procedure - "educational oversight" - and is already touting for business.
In July 2008, Peter Williams, at that time the chief executive of the QAA, appeared before the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee and was told that his agency was "toothless". Not any more. Any QAA-subscribing institution that does not do what it wants, when it wants it, risks having its Tier 4 licence suspended or even revoked. This is power indeed.