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Student Visas (Language Schools)

Volume 508: debated on Monday 22 March 2010

17. What assessment he has made of the effects of tier 4 student visa changes on language schools following the review of November 2009 and the further measures announced in February 2010. (322957)

The changes came into force on 3 March, and we continually monitor tier 4 to ensure its effectiveness. Our policy is designed to protect the integrity of our immigration system and the reputation of the UK’s education providers.

The English language industry is worth £1.5 billion a year to the UK economy, which is money we cannot afford to lose. Will the Minister visit with me the many genuine English language schools in my constituency to see the effects that the changes are having on those businesses, many of which are small and family-run?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his interest. I know he shares my desire to protect the robustness of the immigration system and at the same time enhance the reputation of genuine providers. I do not believe that the changes that we have made to achieve the former are damaging the latter. We continuously review the system—that is part of the strength of tier 4 and the points-based system overall—and although it is probably too early to tell, I have yet to see evidence of a detrimental effect. We have to protect the genuine student, who has sometimes been exploited by unscrupulous colleges.

Would my hon. Friend be a little more precise about the level of English that prospective students on English language courses must attain? Language schools throughout Europe classify their courses as pre-intermediate, intermediate, advanced intermediate and advanced. Can English language schools still teach advanced intermediate courses?

Yes. Some urban myths have been perpetuated in this campaign, so let me be clear that English language courses of six months and below, which are subject to a different visa regime, will be protected. Members of Parliament representing Scotland, which has different terminology, will be pleased to hear that foundation courses are maintained. The problem was with level 5 and below, where there was abuse of the system. As a result of the points-based system, we have significantly cut down the abuse of immigration law and protected the genuine college and, importantly, the genuine student.

The Minister is right to hit the phoney colleges, but we need a rigorous regime that does not hit established colleges and schools as well. As he is wandering around the country over the next five weeks, will he pop up to Ribble Valley with me and come to Stonyhurst college to speak to the headmaster? It is clearly not a phoney establishment, and the headmaster believes that the current visa regime is hitting established businesses.

I will not be wandering around anywhere; I will be purposeful and focused in my travels—wherever the Secretary of State sends me. The hon. Gentleman makes a serious point about genuine colleges, and I have been very careful not to say that the private sector is bad and the public sector is necessarily good. There is good and bad on both sides of the divide. We have had support from the sector, because its reputation will benefit. I have established a unit in the points-based system tier 4 to deal with such cases, and it is best to do so quickly. Of course, if the hon. Gentleman wants to invite me up to his beautiful constituency, I would be more than happy to go again.