Changes to overseas student fees and awards rules will exclude asylum seekers, warns Michael Brophy.
Given the number of stories and reports in the media about the plight of Rwandan, Bosnian and other refugees most people would be excused for thinking that they understand what the term refugee means. However, changes to the Education (Fees and Awards) Regulations which are scheduled to be put before Parliament this month may demonstrate just how limited that understanding is, and also, how in official reasoning, at least, a refugee need not necessarily be classified as a "refugee", particularly when money is involved.
The Department for Education is seeking Parliamentary approval to amend the fees and awards regulations in order "to allow institutions to charge overseas students on part-time study a higher fee to meet the full cost of their study in the United Kingdom". In doing this, it is suggested, the Government will simply be extending the concepts of "home student" and "overseas" fees, already in place for full-time study, to cover part-time study. Concerns about how the changes might affect the welfare of refugees we have been told are unfounded because as the DFE has stated, the changes "will not have any effect upon refugees or those granted exceptional leave to remain (ELR) by the Home Office". The cynically minded might note, however, that the department has differentiated between refugees and those granted ELR. Might there be perhaps a third class of refugees who are not covered by the department's phraseology?
Sure enough if we look at statements made in Parliament about the proposals we find that last December when Sir David Steel asked if the Government would make "refugees and asylum seekers exempt" from the new regulations, he was told that it was not the Government's intention to "change how individuals granted refugee status are treated" and that the Government was consulting with further and higher education institutions to see "if they are likely to offer concessions to students who have applied for refugee status".
So now three different categories of refugee have been identified, those granted refugee status, those with ELR and those who have applied for but not yet received refugee status (asylum seekers). Only people in the first two groups will be treated as "home students" for fees purposes. Many independent observers might regard this as fair and sensible. They would see refugees as being the people who are "in the country", while asylum seekers, are those "still at the airport", people who want to come in. But once again this view is wrong.
The majority of "refugees" who successfully apply for asylum in Britain are not awarded full refugee status. Increasing they are being offered exceptional leave to remain. In 1992 the average length of time between someone applying for asylum and being given a decision was 19.3 months. In 1993 it was 18.8 months and in 1994, 14.2 months. The Government may say that they are reducing the wait time but asylum seekers on average, have to wait more than a year for a decision. In individual cases it will be more than two years. What can these "refugees" do in the meantime ?
They are ineligible to seek work until after they have been in the UK for six months. But even after the six months few will have the formal UK recognised qualifications needed to gain employment. Many will want and need to improve their English before they will be seriously considered by employers.
For many years charities like the Africa Educational Trust (AET) and the World University Service (WUS) have provided assistance to help asylum seekers gain education and training qualifications while they are waiting. At present it is possible for them do this. They can follow part-time courses at further and higher education institutions. Some can scrape together the cost of "home fees", even if it is a struggle to meet them from income support of Pounds 32.35 per week. Charities like AET and WUS will help many others. But if the new regulations come into place this is likely to become impossible. Overseas fees may be up to five times those for home students. For example a full-time BTEC course may cost Pounds 500 for a home student but Pounds 2,500 for an "overseas student". An MA in health studies at a London University college will cost about Pounds 2,500 for a home student but more than Pounds 11,000 for anyone charged at overseas rates. The refugees will be "priced-out of the market" and charities who can now help perhaps one out of every 20 people who need their support will find themselves reduced to helping one in a hundred.
The DFE, to its credit, has undertaken a consultation exercise with further and higher education institutions in England and Wales about the proposed changes. A questionnaire produced 468 replies. The department specifically asked the institutions to indicate whether or not they would be prepared "to offer fee concessions to part-time overseas (sic) students who have applied for, but not yet received, refugee status". Of the 294 institutions replying to this question, 80 per cent said that they would and 20 per cent said that they would not be willing to offer concessions to asylum seekers.
It will be interesting, if these regulations are passed, to see "when push comes to shove" how many of the 80 per cent will in practice forgo the option to charge asylum seekers the "full-cost" overseas fee. One should ask perhaps, given the present climate, of apparently ever decreasing institutional and departmental budgets, is it realistic to expect them to do so?
Michael Brophy is director of the Africa Educational Trust.