Higher education leaders want tougher regulations to stamp out inferior operators. Tony Tysome reports.
The use of the word "college" should be subject to as much regulation as the title "university" to prevent bogus operators from including it in their name, further education heads said this week.
The Association of Colleges says it is concerned that the reputations of its member institutions may be tarnished by the activities of some private organisations that offer inferior-quality teaching and, in other cases, are no more than a front for illegal immigration.
The Home Office, which is conducting a nationwide investigation into bogus colleges and students, is working with the Department for Education and Skills on plans to introduce a register of recognised education providers to help tackle the problem.
But the college heads said the Government's preferred option of creating a voluntary register would do little to prevent rogue operators from plying their trade.
The AoC says that despite the high-profile Government action, unscrupulous organisations are still open for business in London and other major cities.
Jo Clough, the AoC's international director, said: "What we would like to see is the word 'college' protected in the same way as the university title. The main problem is that these institutions go through no audit regime yet they are allowed to trade on the good name of others that do. When these institutions attract media attention because of their activities and the word 'college' is used, you have to ask what does that make Joe Public think about bone fide colleges?"
In its response to a consultation paper on the Government's plans, the AoC says many further education colleges have found that there is confusion among prospective students and visa entry clearance officers in many countries about what constitutes a genuine institution. Ms Clough said: "We have even heard cases of students not being allowed in because entry clearance officers have not recognised a bone fide institution."
The AoC believes that a compulsory register is the only way to keep suspect operators from posing as or damaging the reputation of legitimate colleges.
It rejects the consultation paper's argument that a compulsory register could "put many providers out of business if the standards were too high for them to meet".
The AoC adds: "If we are to protect professional standards in the education and training industry and preserve the reputation of the UK as a quality choice for study by overseas students, it surely behoves all serious learning providers who wish to appear on the list to make that same commitment to quality.
"We would go further and say that any institution not up to core minimum standards should not be allowed to trade in the field of education."
The consultation paper, produced for the DFES by consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers, says that about 500,000 international students come to the UK each year to study English. There are estimated to be more than 600 unaccredited private course providers in this sector alone.
Worries about this sector have prompted the Home Office to develop a scheme to encourage the accreditation of private English-language learning providers. The scheme is linked to immigration regulations.
"This initiative will serve to provide additional validation of providers in the English-language learning sector, and in this way complements the proposed register," the Home Office said.
But the AoC's response says this takes no account of the many hundreds of private providers offering vocational programmes that are not labelled as English as a foreign-language (EFL) courses.
It says: "In London alone, one can see numerous examples of institutions targeting the overseas student market for computing, business studies and other courses. British Council and other schemes relating only to EFL provision would not be relevant for either bogus or genuine learning providers operating in that market."
A spokesman for the DFES said it would be difficult for providers who were not on the voluntary register to recruit overseas students. He said the title "further education college" was protected in law, but there were no plans to extend this to use of the word college as a more generic term.
A BRIGHT SECTOR WITH SHADY AREAS
- About 500,000 students enter the UK each year for English courses, says a PricewaterhouseCoopers consultation paper for the DFES
- About 1,200 private colleges get funding from the Learning and Skills Council and are inspected by Ofsted or the Adult Learning Inspectorate; 550 others are accredited by the British Accreditation Council, the British Council or the Association of British Language Schools
- About 80 per cent of students in the accredited sector are over 18 and are studying English prior to a university or professional qualification course
- There are at least 600 unaccredited English-language colleges
- A recent Home Office investigation found that 178 of 672 colleges checked were genuine; 195 were bogus, and more investigation was needed into 299, most of which were also suspected to be bogus
- New rules mean that students will have to enrol with an accredited college to be granted a student visa.