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Education: Unauthorised Colleges

Volume 712: debated on Monday 20 July 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the number of unauthorised colleges and the number of false students in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, we regulate education and training businesses that are in receipt of public funding, not those established as privately funded businesses. However, all education providers offering services to international students now need to be licensed by the UK Border Agency. We do not have estimates of those who entered the UK as students and are now here illegally or of those who entered improperly prior to the introduction of the new points-based system for migration.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. It is reassuring to hear that the UK Border Agency is now involved. However, should we, or the agency, not have known how many colleges were open? All you needed to do was fill in an online application form. No one ever inspected these colleges, made authorised visits without telling anyone or knew how many students there were. We knew that these colleges existed, though, so why do we not now have a list of them and make sure that every single one of them is closed down? It is too easy for terrorist suspects to come in, not least because the majority came from the north-west region of Pakistan. I would like a reassurance from the Minister that all the former colleges that were offering all sorts of bogus degrees are now inspected and, if found wanting, are closed.

My Lords, all education providers offering services to international students—that is, those coming from outside the European economic area—now need to be licensed by the UK Border Agency and entered on the sponsor register. To qualify for the register, all private education institutions will need to be accredited by one of a limited number of UKBA-approved accreditation bodies. I can tell the noble Lord that, since the new register and inspection process were introduced, nearly 300 colleges have been removed. We have not yet gone through all of them, but we are making rapid progress.

My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the Association of Independent Higher Education Providers and as a member of the joint education task force. I ask my noble friend to make it abundantly clear that, from this day forth, no student can come to any part of the higher education system, either public or private, unless they are coming to a sponsoring college, which has to be accredited and licensed, and without which no student can apply for a visa. Is not the real problem now not to get the system in place, because it is already there, but to get our high commissions and our embassies overseas issuing visas under the new system so that genuine students can come to this country to get their education without the good brand of British higher education suffering due to the absence of students caused by dilatory procedures now in issuing visas?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for both his comment and his questions. I confirm that the processes are as he described. It is important to find the balance between ensuring that people do not enter on false pretences and go to bogus institutions and recognising that international students provide a vital cultural, academic and economic contribution to this country.

My Lords, what are the views of the Minister’s department on the suggestion from the Association of Colleges that the term “college” be protected by an amendment to the Companies Act, so that any organisation wishing to trade under the term must be authorised by the appropriate authorities?

My Lords, I can confirm that our department is looking at the arguments for registering all academic institutions. I cannot yet confirm the attitude taken over the word “college”, but we will consider the arguments for and against a universal requirement for registration or accreditation over the summer. Officials will invite views and opinions from those with an interest in this business sector and report the findings to the Minister in the autumn for consideration.

My Lords, the British high commission in Pakistan estimates that half of all students to whom it grants visas disappear after reaching the UK. How confident is the Minister that this will now stop?

My Lords, we are confident that we now have the right processes in place. We have a process in place to deal with the bogus colleges, which was absolutely essential. We have much stronger checks on immigration and a much stronger visa application system. We can be confident about the processes. Systems will need to be checked over a period of time, but the whole process of border control is being enhanced.

My Lords, as someone who has worked with the UK Border Agency to try to improve the system, I declare an interest as chief executive of Universities UK. Does my noble friend agree that the system risks failure across the board if the IT system that is due to support the student immigration route is not comprehensively tested by the education providers who are going to use it, including the universities? Would my noble friend therefore also agree that the system must be tested to ensure that it can cope with the very considerable increase in student numbers and student data that it is now likely to have to handle?

My Lords, I probably need to write to my noble friend to give her a comprehensive answer. I certainly agree that we need the system to be as effective as possible. As I said, we do not want to deter genuine international students from making visa applications or making genuine applications to study here.