'Tension, no mismatch' between visa casualties and coalition reforms

November 3, 2011

The Home Office is not "rubbing its hands with glee" at the prospect of private colleges closing, a senior official has insisted, as the government revealed that almost 500 independent institutions have been banned from recruiting abroad.

Jeremy Oppenheim, the man in charge of the student-visa regime at the UK Border Agency, said the body did "not take delight or otherwise" in the business impact of its policies, which he said were strictly designed to root out abuses in the system.

He also appeared to accept that policies affecting small private colleges may create "tension" with higher education reforms designed to encourage the commercial sector to flourish, although he added: "It is no more than a tension, it is certainly not a mismatch."

Mr Oppenheim's comments came as figures showed that 250 private colleges have been banned from teaching non-European Union students, including those already enrolled, after failing to apply for highly trusted sponsor (HTS) status, which institutions recruiting internationally must have from next April.

A further 172 cannot recruit new overseas students after applying for HTS status but not "educational oversight" - the new system of accreditation where colleges' standards will be audited by bodies including the Quality Assurance Agency and the Independent Schools Inspectorate.

The UKBA has also revoked the licences of 51 private colleges after a separate investigation into a "spike" in offers made to international students shortly after the government announced tighter English-language requirements but before they were introduced.

Together, the institutions represent at least one-third of the independent college sector for further and higher education. Without the ability to recruit foreign students, many will have to change their business models or close.

Mr Oppenheim, the UKBA's national lead for temporary migration, said he thought some colleges without HTS status would focus on student visitor visas, which limit study time to six months (11 months for English-language courses), or look to expand their UK and EU student numbers.

"We don't take delight or otherwise [in] colleges that are open or closed, it's not what we're there for," he said. "We're not rubbing our hands with glee, but we want to know that people follow the rules and provide a great education for people from outside the EU."

Mr Oppenheim defended the imposition of more stringent criteria on private college students, such as the ban on their working part-time, as research showed that publicly funded institutions had on the whole been "far more demonstrably compliant" with immigration rules.

Asked if this was unfair on "reputable" private institutions, he said: "We create policy based upon an analysis [of] the generalities, not the specific colleges."

He said that even the Knight review of student visas in Australia - which some have predicted will make the country more competitive than the UK in the international market - had treated private colleges with caution.

The Knight report "observes that some less reputable institutions have set up courses that have no serious educational purpose, but were basically designed to get fees from students as a route to migration", Mr Oppenheim said.

simon.baker@tsleducation.com.

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