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Education: Overseas Students

Volume 721: debated on Wednesday 13 October 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to enforce the rules that require students coming to the United Kingdom for study to have an intermediate, rather than elementary, level of English.

My Lords, in order to enforce the rule that students must have an intermediate level of English when applying to study in the UK, the UK Border Agency will refuse applications in cases where students who are required to have an English language test set by an approved provider cannot present the verifiable evidence of having so achieved that qualification. These rules came into effect on 12 August.

My Lords, that is a very encouraging Answer, because I have asked questions in this broad field at least four times, and this is the first time that we have heard a positive Answer about progress, compared with the shambles whereby something like 20 per cent of overseas students are still here five years after graduating. Does my noble friend recognise, like those of us who watched the television this morning, that the wonderful rescue taking place in Chile has been achieved by sheer skill, organisation, professionalism and true leadership? Will she ensure that the Foreign Office, the UK Border Agency and the home agencies involved, for once, co-ordinate their activities so that genuine students can come to genuine universities and genuine colleges?

I am sure that the whole House would endorse what the noble Lord said about the skill with which the miners in Chile are being rescued from what would otherwise have been a terrible fate. As to the skill with which government departments are to operate on overseas students, we have put in place a number of measures which indeed include co-ordination between individuals in the UK Border Agency and Foreign Office posts. The system is designed to do two things. One is to monitor the conduct of sponsoring institutions so that they do their duty by ensuring that students who are registered with them actually turn up. The other is to ensure that the students actually come; and if they do not come, they will be penalised. If the institutions fail to ensure that their students turn up and do not correct that, they will have their licences taken away.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness acknowledge, contrary to the point of view put by the questioner, that in fact the previous Government took action against unscrupulous course providers through the sponsor licensing system? Can she say how many education providers were closed as a result of those actions?

My Lords, the previous Government certainly began to put measures in place. This Government have built on those measures, very much strengthened them and are still evaluating whether we have strong enough measures in place. If we want to take further measures, we shall announce them before the end of the year. As to the numbers, 220 institutions have been suspended since the tier-4 system put in place by this Government took effect; 53 of those are permanent suspensions and 78 are still under evaluation. Real measures are being taken—with teeth.

Indeed, and no part of the Government’s policy is aimed at doing anything other than enabling genuine language schools to offer genuine language teaching to genuine students—one of the points made earlier by my noble friend. The English language qualification for those courses is lower because it is designed to enable people either to do a foundation course or to learn basic English, so different rules apply. On the other hand, we intend those students to actually be in genuine institutions.

Does the Minister consider that adequate safeguards are in place to detect impersonation in oral examinations by those who present themselves at the borders with supposed qualifications? If so, what are they?

My Lords, if you are to be required to have an English language qualification before you turn up, that obviously has to have been acquired somewhere else. A register has been built up of approved institutions, which have to demonstrate that they are both able and capable of providing the necessary qualification. They have to have a trading presence in this country and a reputation established independently of their application to government. If that is done, it is hoped that the qualifications will prove genuine. However, there is also monitoring of those institutions, whereby people go along and inspect whether they are still providing courses of the right level and whether the students are attending.

I go back to the question asked by my noble friend Lord Hunt about the number of institutions that are no longer in business compared with when the previous Government introduced the review that led to the points-based system. Will the Minister agree with me if I suggest that 2,000 colleges did not get the necessary level of accreditation ever to be put on the register, and that the number that she gave was for institutions that were accredited but have since been knocked off the register? Therefore, the total number of institutions that are not providing higher education services where they were previously is around 2,300. Does she further agree that it is imperative for the financial success of higher education that overseas students come to our higher education institutions, to part-mitigate the cuts that have been made in higher education and will be made in the spending review next week?

My Lords, I think that this Question is about English language qualifications for students arriving in this country. I found it difficult to follow the noble Lord’s logic. Many of the institutions that were operating without either the necessary qualifications or a licence were clearly being allowed to do so under the previous Government. I have said that we have suspended some of the institutions that were accredited, and I shall look at whether others have fallen out of the system. However, we are certainly applying extremely rigorous standards to the 2,000 or so institutions that are accredited as things stand at the moment.

Does the Minister, who is herself fluent in French and German, agree that it is equally important that English students learn foreign languages?

My Lords, the points-based system does not apply to those who come from the European Community. What is being done to measure their competence in English?

The standards that have to be met for competence in English must comply with a European framework regulation, so a student coming here to do an advanced course has to meet that European level of qualification.