Political pendulum

The UK’s English language teaching industry really has been treated horribly by its government…  The Home Office has continually changed the visa rules so that education agencies around the world report that they now prefer doing business with other countries where they at least know what the visa issuing confines are. It has ruled that international students cannot work part-time while enrolled at private language colleges, even though they can do so at state institutions. And it has elbowed out the long-standing industry-specific accreditation systems – such as Accreditation UK (the British Council-backed scheme) or ABLS – decreeing that institutions who wish to operate under Tier 4 of the visa regime and recruit General Student visa holders must now pay four-times as much and undergo a quality inspection by an accreditation body that has no track record of working with language training organisations.

Does it sound as if I am making it up? If only… but it gets worse. Two weeks ago, the Home Office issued a statement in which it trumpeted that “over 400 colleges have lost their right to recruit international students”… failing to clarify that many of these colleges chose to lose their right to recruit under Tier 4, but are still quality-accredited by sector-specific organisations and can recruit under a separate visa category. This statement got translated by the press as over 400 colleges being banned –  and sections of the press actually printed the names of some of those colleges. Legal action is ensuing – and you can read more about this story and all the background on our site.

I am sure the political pendulum in the UK will swing the other way in time, and steps will be taken to help bolster the education export industry while maintaining safeguards against visa fraud. The industry was unchecked for too long and then the government crushed some of the smaller operators in the sector while trying to stamp out visa fraud and reduce immigration. Stamping out visa fraud is of course an essential remit of any government; but trying to reduce immigrant numbers to an unrealistic pledge of tens of thousands, and counting temporary students as migrants in the first place, is not such a noble political pursuit in my opinion.

Amy Baker is Director and Editor-in-Chief at The PIE. Follow her on Twitter: www.twitter.com/amybakerThePIE

Guest blogger: Nick Jordan

In August this year the Home Secretary Theresa May announced a raft of legislative proposals that would form another front in the Government’s campaign to reduce the total number of immigrants entering the UK. The current administration has pledged itself to reducing migration into Britain, ‘from the hundreds of thousands, to the tens of thousands’. It’s one of those pledges – catchy and somewhat vague – that are made when there is an election to be won; a promise made with fingers firmly crossed.

In this instance, the Government and its agencies are taking aim at the estimated 340,000 international, non-EU students who come to Britain every year to study at schools and colleges. The stated intention of the Home Office is to reduce the number of student visas issued every year by 70,000-80,000: the equivalent of a 25% fall.

Now, any government worth the name knows that for every single immigrant entering the country there are at least 100,000 members of the voting public expressing serious concerns about immigration levels. And if this statistic seems somehow dubious to you, confected perhaps by the writer in order to make a wider point, then a) you’d be right, I just made it up and b) if you think that’s bad, read on to see how poorly the Government uses immigration numbers to frame policies that have an enormous bearing on the both the success of the British economy, and our wider standing in international affairs.

According to a recent report on Student Visas by a Home Affairs Select Committee, ‘The international student market, estimated to be worth £40 billion to the UK economy is a significant growth market and the UK is the second most popular destination in the world for international students.’ So, in these much-lamented days of recession and austerity, we have an industry bringing a whopping £40 billion into the UK economy. It is, by any account a fantastic commercial success story – and yet the current Government (in line with the previous) seems hell-bent on bringing this industry to its knees, by employing legislation that the Committee report says will have ‘a calamitous impact’ on business.

Within the industry itself, the situation is widely understood to be farcical. Tony Millns, Chief Executive of industry-body English UK points out the obvious (someone needs to), when he says:

“The Government’s economic strategy and its immigration policy are completely at odds with each other in the area of international students. We should be making the most of the fact that our international reputation for quality in education is so high that students want to come here [to study]. Instead, the message which has gone out round the world is that Britain no longer wants students to come here.”

As I have suggested, the ‘problem’ here is immigration, with the Government currently classifying international students who come to study on a visa as ‘migrants’. But this is surely ridiculous. Whilst the public are, rightly or otherwise, concerned about immigration levels, do most people honestly think that foreign students visiting Britain on temporary visas, should be classified as immigrants? Even Migration Watch UK, a hard-line organisation dedicated to drastic reductions in immigration levels, has no problem with foreign students coming to study in the UK, as long as they leave again.

But the Government stubbornly refuse to make the distinction between immigrants and student visitors. They are, to all intents and purposes, the same thing. For MP Julian Huppert, who sat on the Select Committee for Student Visas, the situation is absurd:

“Students are clearly not migrants in any real sense, assuming they leave after their studies; if we had exit checks at the borders, we would know who was still here and who wasn’t, and have more sensible policies.”

And it is here that we come to real nonsense of this situation, indeed of the immigration question as a whole. Huppert says: ‘if we had exit checks at the borders’. What he means is simple and terrifyingly absurd: the UK authorities only measure the number of immigrants coming into the country, not the number leaving. This would be similar to measuring the population of a country by taking into account its birth rate, and not its death rate. Is this really the way to ‘restore sanity’ to the student visa system, as Theresa May claimed? If that isn’t a broken system, then it’s hard to know what is, and yet it is being used to help inform and frame government policy towards this vital and enormously successful British service industry.

Politicians and their pledges come and go, but the reality and impact of commerce resonates in a very immediate way, affecting real people in real time. As a result of these changes, thousands of jobs will be lost, and millions of pounds lost to UK revenue at a time when jobs are desperately needed and the Exchequer is crying out for revenue. Where is the sense in that? Furthermore, the English language is Britain’s great gift to the world. It is the vital language of commerce, diplomacy and human understanding, and it will stand long after the vote-grabbers have been forgotten.

I would contend, that the best place to learn our great language is in Britain, here and now. Sadly, and for the basest of reasons, the British Government which should represent this nation’s interests, stands committed to making it as hard as possible for the world to learn the English language.

Nick Jordan is a marketing manger and journalist, working in the international education sector. He has written for a wide variety of business and lifestyle publications, and currently works for a tutorial college in Cambridge. Follow Nick Jordan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/NickJordan