I wrote recently about the train-wreck that is happening before our eyes with the new student visa rules. Well, there has been a new development. The UK Border Agency has abruptly suspended the visa-sponsoring licences of more than 50 private colleges without giving reasons. All over the place, crisis talks are taking place in the colleges affected, as people try to work out what on earth is happening. Is this more of the deep-rooted incompetence that we have all come to expect from the Home Office, or has a political decision been taken to expel lots of dark faces and damn the consequences?
From where I sit, helping to administer a small college, it is hard to discern any rational basis for this action. Among the 50-plus colleges some are seriously dodgy, but the honest ones are utterly infuriated at being associated with the bad ones. Meanwhile, plenty of dodgy colleges still keep their licences. As ever, the UKBA is its inscrutable “don’t’ call us, we’ll call you” (or should that be “never explain, never apologise”?) self.
Let’s put this in practical, human terms. We have students whose visa renewals are due in ten days. What can they do? Look for another college that still has its licence and spaces available? Go back home with tail between legs and without the diplomas they came for? Or go underground for a while? These are serious, hard-working, intelligent students, not the black economy workers who so exercise the right-wing press. They have employers who really value them at their part-time jobs too.
Multiply that up across the country and there must be thousands of students in deep trouble. I hate to think how many court cases against the government are being hatched right now, especially in the colleges that specialise in teaching law. Students with months or years of visa still to run will carry on being taught properly, but inevitably they will worry. They know that mud sticks, and that the owners of this college instantly have less money to spend on library books, IT facilities, student welfare, and so on.
Despite what some people say (including Matthew H commenting on my last piece) many small colleges do a fine job of teaching, with small class sizes and without the useless but tenured staff that blight some universities. Our students are often poor, and in need of a lot of remedial English tuition, but they are not stupid, nor criminal, nor inclined to be terrorists. At least not now, but I cannot speak for how they will feel if they are utterly shafted by UK plc failing to deliver the decent education they were promised.
The root of the problem appears to be that the UKBA is still “not fit for purpose”. It does not have enough brainpower to behave rationally and is just lashing out like a wounded animal. Policing private colleges is actually quite an easy task. It is not as if colleges hide their existence. Just send round inspectors on unannounced visits to sit in on a couple of classes, talk to a few students, and sample a few college administrative records. That would rapidly identify which colleges need to be shut down, which are altogether different from the 50-plus who have (one hopes temporarily) lost their licences.
* Editor’s note on the author: this article was written by the head of a private college, who also authored this post and understandably prefers to remain anonymous. They are a long-standing Liberal Democrat member.