Back To The Future: The New Immigration Regulations & The May Elections

It may of course just be a coincidence: At a Conservative Party meeting in Hampshire on 14th April 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron delivered a speech expressing concern about what he categorised as “unchecked,mass immigration” into the UK. This followed the announcement by his Home Secretary, Theresa May, in the House of Commons on 21st March, that  there would be significant and comprehensive revision of the foreign student visa system which (in her view) had become “broken and abused” under the previous (Labour) Government. Full details of the changes were published in a “Statement Of Intent And Transitional Measures” released by the UK Border Agency (UKBA). The new regulations came into effect on 21st April. In just over one week’s time (Thursday 5th May), elections will be taking place across the UK for local authorities in most of England (though not in London), the Welsh National Assembly, the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly and in Leicester South where consituents will be choosing a new Member of Parliament. On the same day, the country will be asked to decide whether it wants to adopt the “Alternative Vote” (AV) to replace the “first past the post” method currently used in General Elections for the Westminster Parliament.

This sequence of events is somewhat reminiscent of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s attempt to stay in power by demonstrating that he was responding to what he interpreted as national alarm about the influx from abroad. It didn’t succeed: He was defeated on 6th May 2010 and resigned four days later. His efforts, however, did prompt UKBA to increase the minimum level of English required  for overseas students wishing to follow courses in Britain from A1 (Elementary) to B1 (Intermediate). When this measure was rejected by Mr Justice Foskett in the High Court, UKBA immediately re-introduced it by means of a “Statement of Changes in Immigration Rules” presented to Parliament on 22nd July 2010. The latest rules are even more drastic. Theresa May has justified them with the contention that “too many institutions are selling immigration, not education”, that they are not exercising “due dilgence” on matters such as attendance in class and that “so-called students” arriving at Heathrow airport “cannot answer basic questions in English or even describe what their course is about”. She also clearly believes that the majority of such cases are entering the country mainly to work, not to follow courses – so has abolished part-time work permission for those enrolled at private educational establishments. This prohibition, however, does not apply to the public sector: students at Further Education institutions are allowed to take employment for up to 10 hours per week,and those at university for a maximum of 20 hours per week. As noted by “Guardian Weekly”  columnist Max de Lotbiniere, this distinction has understandably infuriated Britain’s “long-established English language schools sector (estimated to contribute $3billion to the UK economy) on whom the rule changes will have immediate impact”. Neil Mackay, Academic Principal of Alfred the Great College in central London and founder of the recently-formed “Association Of Private Schools and Colleges”(AUKISC) acknowledges that there has been considerable abuse of the visa system and that “gullible students” have been exploited. He considers.though, the B1 language level requirement to be “quite bizzarre: You have to know English to study it” and points out the “huge anonomalies” inherent in an arrangement whereby private sector students following the same courses, for the same degrees accredited by the same bodies as their university counterparts are not allowed to work”. Moreover, universities with an attendance rate of around 40% “would fall at the first hurdle required for private institutions”. In a front-page article on April 17th,”The Sunday Times” reported that AUKISC had been advised by the Liberal-Democrat Business Minister,Vince Cable, to start “legal action in the High Court to stop UKBA withdrawing hundreds of licences to admit non-European Union students” and thereby pushing private colleges to the brink of insolvency.

Research conducted by AUKISC members has indicated that (in a reverse of the situation ten years ago) the private sector is now smaller (and in some cases “more respectable and responsible”) than its state equivalent, that the enforcements implemented over that period have been effective in reducing the numbers of bogus schools and students so there is no need to introduce additional  powers, policies or practices to deal with a diminishing problem. Furthermore, whereas private college students have to attend their course for a minimum of 15 hours per week and know that UKBA will be notified if they are absent ( otherwise the college will be suspended from the “approved list”), students in the public sector (claim AUKISC) only have to be on the premises for 8 hours per week: “With many universities, provided you pay the fees and hand in your coursework, nobody will care whether you are actually attending any classes. The idea of suspension or loss of licence is, at present, for the universities unthinkable”.

Meanwhile, the English Language Schools are having to digest the implications of UKBA’s decision (reported by Max de Lotbiniere) to end its recognition of the inspection schemes operated by the British Council and the Association of British Language Schools (ABLS) which “together provide assurance of standards for much of the sector”. The new regulations will require all sponsors to have been “vetted by one of the approved inspectorates” such as Ofsted or the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) and to have achieved “Highly Trusted Sponsor” status by no later than April 2012. These developments have created uncertainty as to whether there will be any point any more in a college applying, preparing and paying for a British Council or ABLS inspection or indeed continuing to be a member of English UK – the association that represents over 450 accredited English language teaching providers and was established in May 2004 following the merger between ARELS (The Association Of Recognised English Language Schools) and BASCELT (The British Association of State Colleges in EFL Teaching) on the basis that it would thereby be able to exert more influence over Government policy and could simultaneously represent the (often diverging and competing) interests of both its private and state sector members. Yet another problem for the EFL Schools is that UKBA officers have been given the authority to refuse admission at the port of entry to students “who can’t speak English without an interpreter and who do not meet the required minimum standards”: In the opinion of David Blackie (Director of  International Education Connect),  this constitutes a nightmare scenario for those arriving at an unearthly hour after a long-haul flight, disorientated and trying to tune into what for them is a foreign language: “The border guards will decide on everything, including specifically how good a student  is at English. This is a disaster waiting to happen”.


Filed under: Immigration & Visas | Posted on April 26th, 2011 by Colin D Gordon

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