Bogus colleges - Home Affairs Committee Contents

Bogus colleges

Background to the inquiry

1. Unlike publicly-funded further education colleges and universities, private educational establishments are not subject to regulation by the state.[1] This allows for the relatively easy foundation of further education colleges and English language schools, many of which are legitimate and effective providers of education but, in some cases, they have been established for other purposes. In the context of this Report, the term "bogus college" refers to an illegitimate educational establishment set up primarily to enable non-European Economic Area (EEA) nationals to come to the UK on fraudulent student visas. However, lack of regulation also allows for the existence of colleges that are of "very poor quality and are ripping off students who believe that they are coming for a genuine educational experience".[2]

2. The phenomenon of bogus colleges was widely reported in the media in the spring of 2009, in particular in The Times newspaper in connection with eight Pakistani nationals arrested in April 2009 under terrorism laws in Operation Pathway. These students were later found to be in the UK on student visas fraudulently facilitated by an organisation calling itself a "college" but providing extremely limited teaching facilities for the number of students on its books. The Times reported that those running the scam charged at least £1,000 for admission places and fake diplomas and £2,500 for false attendance records, diplomas and degrees that were used to extend the student visas, enabling them to stay in Britain for longer.[3]

3. We investigated this phenomenon and measures taken by the Government to ensure that student visas are only issued to foreign nationals coming to the UK for the purpose of genuine study and regulation of colleges. To this end we took evidence on 2 June 2009 from Mr Nick Lewis, of the Association of Colleges, which represents further education colleges; Mr Tony Millns, Chief Executive of English UK, which represents accredited English language schools in the UK; and the Minister of State for Borders and Immigration, Phil Woolas MP, along with the National Lead for Economic and Family Migration at the UK Border Agency, Mr Jeremy Oppenheim. Information provided by these witnesses indicated that it would also be useful to take evidence from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. We therefore questioned the Minister for Further Education, Skills, Apprenticeships and Consumer Affairs, Kevin Brennan MP, on 16 June 2009. We also received written memoranda from Universities UK, the Pakistani High Commission in London, the Home Office and the Accreditation Service for International Colleges. We thank all those who contributed to our inquiry.

Regulations governing the issuing of student visas

4. Between January 2005 and March 2009, only overseas students who could show that they had a place to study, or were already studying at an institution which appeared on the Register of Education Providers (REP) operated by the then Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) were granted entry clearances or extensions of stay as students. Institutions that were publicly funded, inspected and audited, and those private institutions which underwent voluntary accreditation and inspection by the British Accreditation Council, the English in Britain Accreditation Scheme administered by the British Council, the Adult Learning Inspectorate, the Association of British Language Schools or the Education and Training Inspectorate Northern Ireland, were automatically entered onto the REP.

5. Private institutions without accreditation were also able to get on the REP by providing evidence of their registration as a legal business with Companies House; details of their staff and staff qualifications; floor plans to show classrooms and other facilities; and a copy of their prospectus to give an indication of the teaching they provided.

6. The Home Office carried out inspections of colleges on the REP: 1,200 were visited ahead of the Register being implemented, of which 25% were found not to be genuine, and a further 69 colleges were removed from the Register following visits from UK Border Agency compliance officers.[4] However, the UK Border Agency admitted that the Register was not effective enough at preventing bogus colleges:

    With the benefit of experience and hindsight, the lack of quality assurance is a weakness to the current REP. The Home Office is concerned that an unknown number of private institutions are operating largely to provide low quality teaching to those wishing to enter or remain in the UK as students whilst working illegally. At present, the BIA's resources for student compliance are largely occupied with carrying out reactive, intelligence-led visits to suspect colleges on the REP. Whilst many such colleges have been shown not to be bona fide and subsequently removed, it is obvious that the BIA's resources might have been used more proactively if such colleges had not been allowed to enter onto the REP in the first place.[5]

7. The UK Border Agency has attempted to respond to these concerns by introducing a greater level of regulation of educational establishments under the new points based immigration system. The phased implementation of Tier 4 of the Points Based System, which covers students, began in March 2009. International students are only able to apply for a visa under the new system if they are sponsored by an accredited further or higher education institution. In order to sponsor students, institutions need to register with—and be approved by—the UK Border Agency and in addition prove that they hold valid accreditation from one of the UK Border Agency-approved educational accreditation bodies, namely, Accreditation UK, the British Accreditation Council, the Accreditation Service for International Colleges, Association of British Language Schools, the Church of England Ministry Division or Ofsted.[6] The UK Border Agency has argued that:

    The effect of demanding independent accreditation will be to assure the Home Office that an institution is genuinely providing education rather than offering low quality courses for the purposes of facilitating applications by bogus students.[7]

8. Insufficient quality assurance procedures on the part of the Department for Innovations, Universities and Skills for private educational establishments on the Register of Education Providers, which facilitated the issuing of student visas between 2005 and 2009, allowed bogus colleges to bring foreign nationals into the UK on fraudulent student visas. We are pleased that the UK Border Agency has recognised the deficiencies of this system and introduced more rigorous regulation of educational establishments sponsoring student visas under the Points Based System. However, we remain cautious about the UK Border Agency's ability to deal with this issue and will continue to monitor sponsorship arrangements once Tier 4 of the Points Based System has been fully implemented.

The extent of the bogus college phenomenon

9. The Times newspaper reported on 21 May 2009 that "thousands of young Pakistanis exploited a hole in Britain's immigration defences to enrol as students at a network of sham colleges".[8] It stated that the eight terror suspects had enrolled at one college, which had only three small classrooms and three teachers but 1,797 students on its books. The article added that another college claiming to have 150 students had secretly enrolled 1,178 and offered places to a further 1,575 overseas applicants, 906 of them in Pakistan.[9]

10. The Minister of State for Borders and Immigration told us that the Home Office issues around 200,000 student visas each year. Witnesses were unable to give an accurate estimate as to how many of these students entered the country via bogus colleges but the Chief Executive of English UK, Tony Millns, said "it could be tens of thousands quite easily".[10] He thought that the majority of these students would be registered for English language, computing, IT and business courses.[11]

11. We attempted to ascertain the number of bogus colleges in existence. The previous Register of Education Providers listed approximately 15,000 education and training organisations, about 4,000 of which consistently offered courses to foreign students. The UK Border Agency has licensed 1,594 educational establishments as sponsors under Tier 4 of the Points Based System.[12] This seems to imply that around 2,200 colleges on the REP which were enrolling foreign students have either not applied to be sponsors under the new system or have not been approved. Commenting on these figures, the Minister of State for Borders and Immigration said:

    One could draw the conclusion … that the difference is dodgy. I would caution against saying all of those are dodgy. Some have chosen not to apply perhaps for commercial reasons, but that would be my guess.[13]

12. Individuals who "facilitate the commission of a breach of immigration law by a non-EU citizen" can be prosecuted under the Immigration Act 1971. Between 2003 and 2007 253 cases presented to Magistrates Courts in England and Wales and 62 individuals were found guilty of this offence. There were 518 cases sent to trial at Crown Court in England and Wales in the same period and 387 individuals were found guilty.[14]

13. It is difficult to ascertain a precise figure for the number of bogus colleges in existence. One method of forming an estimate is to look at the discrepancy between educational establishments listed on the previous Register of Education Providers, which provided the only means of obtaining a student visa until March 2009, and those listed on the register of sponsors under the points based immigration system, which has replaced the Register of Education Providers and requires more stringent checks of educational establishments' credentials. There are around 2,200 colleges which were on the Register of Education Providers but are not on the register of sponsors. Whilst failure to transfer from the Register of Providers to the register of sponsors does not automatically mean a college is "bogus", we suspect that a significant proportion of these colleges are not legitimate.

14. Colleges not on the register of sponsors will no longer be able to facilitate student visas; however we are concerned about the number of illegal immigrants who may already have entered the UK on fraudulent student visas, the numbers of which could be in the tens of thousands. Firm enforcement action must be taken against any individual whose student visa has expired to ensure that they leave the country, as well as against those who have set up bogus colleges to perpetrate visa fraud. We have received no evidence that the Home Office has made adequate preparations to deal with this issue.

The alleged terrorism link

15. Coverage of bogus colleges in The Times suggested that there was a link between visa fraud and terrorism.[15] However, no substantial evidence has been put forward to validate these claims either from the paper itself or the police. In the first instance, all of the Pakistani students alluded to were released without charge. The Minister of State for Borders and Immigration told us that previous terrorism attacks in the UK involved individuals on "genuine" student visas. He said:

    Our experience is that terrorists are not going to draw attention to themselves, but the student visa route has been in the past, I believe, as I have said honestly this morning, subject to abuse. I personally have never seen any information or intelligence that suggests that terrorists or would-be terrorists have used that route. Commonsense says that you are going to get a valid visa if you are intent on criminal activity.[16]

According to Mr Millns, the suggestion that those planning terrorism acts might deliberately use bogus colleges to enter the UK was "perfectly possible", but he considered that the vast majority of bogus students are "disguised economic migrants … here to work illegally".[17]

16. We found no substantial evidence to corroborate the alleged link between bogus colleges and terrorist activity. The Pakistani nationals who entered the country on fraudulently-obtained student visas and who were arrested in Operation Pathway in April 2009 were subsequently released without charge. As far as we are aware, foreign students involved in previous terrorist plots have entered the UK on genuine student visas. Our evidence suggested that most individuals entering the UK on fraudulently-obtained student visas do so in order to work illegally.

Home Office initiatives to tackle bogus colleges

17. Witnesses were in agreement that the new register of sponsors under the Points Based System would go a long way to tackling the problem of bogus colleges.[18] The Minister for Further Education, Skills, Apprenticeships and Consumer Affairs summarised:

    The new system which is in place will make sure that bogus institutions will find it very difficult indeed, if not impossible, to be able to register and to bring in students from outside the EEA.[19]

In the process of drawing up the register of education sponsors, the UK Border Agency rejected applications from over 300 institutions, "many of them bogus colleges".[20]

18. However, The Times reported on 15 April that "hundreds of colleges recently approved by the Home Office to accept non-EU students have not been inspected by its officers".[21] It went on to state that "it has also emerged that the vast majority of non-EU students will not be interviewed by the Home Office but admitted on the basis of written applications and evidence of sponsorship". The Times article notes that "advance notice was given of the periodic Home Office visits made after the college [of which the eight arrested men were students] opened, so there was always time to make sure associates and employees were sitting studiously in a classroom when an inspector arrived".[22]

19. We put this to the National Lead for Economic and Family Migration, Mr Oppenheim. He told us:

    Nobody gets on the register without two processes going on: firstly, accreditation by one of the academic accreditation bodies … and, secondly, we need to assess whether the college is taking note of, understands and applies the immigration rules as they are expected to do. That does not mean that we have visited every single one of the establishments. There is for me a difference between visiting King's College Cambridge and [the fictional] King's College on Cambridge Heath Road, Bethnal Green, to put it bluntly.[23]

He said that the UK Border Agency would have visited all of the establishments on the register by July 2009. As of June 2009, 705 institutions had been visited, 100 of which visits were unannounced.[24] We note that 705 is less than half the total of establishments registered to admit foreign students. Even omitting well-known educational establishments, it seems unlikely that all those on the register that need to be inspected will have been by the end of July 2009.

20. We were also made aware of concerns in the education sector about one of the accrediting bodies, the Accreditation Service for International Colleges, by Baroness Warwick, the Chief Executive of Universities UK:

    ASIC did not exist in terms of a web presence until its approval as an accreditation body was announced in July 2007 and despite repeated requests by Universities UK officers to civil servants there is a lack of information and transparency about its management governance and financial structures. Its website provides no inspection reports for its accredited colleges or a list of its inspectors. Several of the colleges that it accredits have been associated with inappropriate activities. Universities UK did not receive a reply from the Minister.[25]

We put this to our witnesses. Mr Millns said:

    If you look on Companies House I think it is difficult to see who the ultimate beneficial owners of that organisation are … it is certainly the case that the accreditation bodies that have been approved need to be reviewed and there needs to be a lot more rigorous work done on ensuring that they are making decisions based on the same standards, which I personally do not believe they are at the moment.[26]

The UK Border Agency is currently undertaking a review of accrediting organisations and will report in due course.[27]

21. In response to the concerns expressed by Universities UK, Maurice Dimmock, the Chief Executive of ASIC, denied that his organisation is less transparent than other accreditation bodies and argued that "any behaviour by colleges which ASIC has considered to be inappropriate or suspicious in any way has regularly been reported to UKBA, leading in some cases to the college being closed".[28] In one instance, their suspicions had been aroused following a change in ownership of the college after accreditation had taken place. We were concerned that UKBA did not require re-accreditation in such circumstances.

22. New arrangements for issuing student visas under the points based immigration system do appear to provide a more effective means of countering bogus colleges because of the requirement for independent accreditation coupled with the UK Border Agency's inspection regime. However, we are deeply concerned to hear that advance notice of inspection visits has been given in up to 85% of cases. This is unacceptable and does not give us any confidence in the rigour of the inspection regime in combating bogus colleges. The UK Border Agency should ensure that sufficient resources are provided to allow for rigorous and, critically, unannounced inspections. Any change in college ownership should require the college to be re-accredited.

23. In addition, we note concerns amongst the education sector about the credentials of one of the accrediting bodies, the Accreditation Service for International Colleges. We understand the UK Border Agency is currently conducting a review of accrediting organisations, but the allegations are very worrying, and we suggest that they look closely at these allegations and request they make the results of the review available to us as a matter of urgency.

BIS initiatives to tackle bogus colleges

24. As well as enabling the breach of immigration controls, the existence of bogus colleges is highly damaging to the British education system as a whole. Mr Millns told us:

    Internationally, the UK's reputation for quality in education is its key selling point. It is why international students come here. Colleges which are bogus, or simply poor quality because they are not quality assured in any way through accreditation, damage that reputation of quality so all legitimate institutions suffer … International students bring in around £8 billion a year to the UK and they are growing. We have just looked at our first quarter statistics for 2009 for our core group as against the first quarter of last year and it is 14.6% up on the first quarter of 2008.[29]

The Association of Colleges argued that current Home Office action to deal with the problem of bogus colleges is "welcome but is possibly inefficient".[30] Mr Millns argued that the government department responsible for further and higher education, now the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, should do more to tackle the issue of bogus colleges:

    I would not say in front of the Home Affairs Select Committee that this is entirely the Home Office's fault. It has always struck me as extremely strange … that the Education Departments … have never made a move in any way to license, accredit or quality assure private sector education establishments. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is a national scandal that nothing has ever been done.[31]

25. The Government has been made aware of this concern several times. Nick Lewis, of the Association of Colleges, said that he had raised the issue "on many occasions" with Ministers since 1999, when he was appointed to an inter-departmental group established to support the Prime Minister's initiative for the recruitment of international students and international education contacts.[32] When we put this to the Minister for Further Education, Skills, Apprenticeships and Consumer Affairs, he responded:

    I do take seriously what the Association of Colleges and English UK are saying about the potential continued existence of bogus colleges … There is a case to look at now and possibly to consider some further steps in relation to these institutions which may still be attracting students from countries within the EEA and still may not be providing the sort of education which they should be providing, if they were legitimate institutions.[33]

26. One solution proposed by the Association of Colleges was to use the Companies Act 2006 to restrict use of the term "college" in future to properly accredited institutions, in the same way in which the term "university" is restricted:

    It is open to the Department of Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform [now the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills] to add the word "college" to their list of regulated words in the establishment of companies and that would be a long-term impact to restrict and slowly reduce the number of organisations that care to call themselves a college.[34]

The Minister undertook to investigate this suggestion.[35]

27. We are extremely disappointed that the Government has ignored repeated warnings from the education sector about the problem of bogus colleges. While the new sponsorship system under the points based immigration system should help to prevent bogus colleges, we consider that a more complete means of prevention requires the compulsory regulation of private further education colleges and English language schools by the state. We therefore strongly recommend that the Government uses the Companies Act 2006 to restrict use of the term "college" in future to properly accredited institutions and instigates an inspection regime to enforce this. Alongside measures to tighten the UK's immigration controls, this would protect EEA, as well as non-EEA, students from receiving sub-standard education at unregulated private colleges, which is highly damaging to the UK's international reputation for education and therefore the UK economy.

28. Legitimate educational establishments are often aware of bogus colleges operating in their area; for example, during our inquiry we were made aware that Liverpool John Moores University had alerted the UK Border Agency to its concerns about a bogus college in Manchester through which some of the Operation Pathway suspects had obtained visas. However, there are no formal systems in place for them to share this intelligence with the relevant authorities. Mr Lewis told us:

    The Association of Colleges has a regional set-up so that we have local intelligence across the cities and region. It tends to be pooling information in an informal way. We do not maintain a register of what we regard as bogus colleges internally, but we do network and we do have that information coming in, but … we do not collect it systematically … it is beyond our resources to do that … We have attempted to put in information and so on as best we can. The more systematic this can be done the more easily we can help.[36]

29. We recommend that the Department for Business, Enterprise and Skills devises a system to make better use of intelligence provided by college networks, such as the Association of Colleges, to close down bogus colleges. We intend to revisit this issue once Tier 4 of the Points Based System has been fully implemented.

30. Foreign nationals who apply to study in the UK in good faith but find themselves to be the victim of a scam on arrival also provide a valuable source of information about bogus colleges. However, these individuals may fear that reporting such establishments to the authorities would result in the closure of the establishments and lead to the students' status becoming that of illegal immigrants. As they have entered the UK illegally, however unwittingly, such individuals should not be allowed to remain; but to encourage greater reporting, those who do come forward with information should not be precluded from making successful immigration applications in future.

1   Q 9 [Tony Millns] Back

2   Q 16 [Tony Millns] Back

3   "Sham colleges open doors to Pakistani terror suspects", The Times, 21 May 2009,  Back

4   UK Border Agency, Accreditation of Private Educational Institutions Involved in Recruiting International Students under the Points Based System, Regulatory Impact Assessment, July 2007, p.4 Back

5   Ibid, pp.4-5 Back

6   Q 72 [Jeremy Oppenheim] Back

7   UK Border Agency , Accreditation of Private Educational Institutions Involved in Recruiting International Students under the Points-Based System, Regulatory Impact Assessment, July 2007, p.4 Back

8   Sham colleges open doors to Pakistani terror suspects, The Times, 21 May 2009,  Back

9   Ibid Back

10   Q 7 [Tony Millns] Back

11   Q 14 Back

12   Ev 25 [Home Office] Back

13   Q 63 [Phil Woolas MP]  Back

14   Ev 25 [Home Office] Back

15   Sham colleges open doors to Pakistani terror suspects, The Times, 21 May 2009, Back

16   Q 69 Back

17   Q 15 Back

18   See for example Q33 [Nick Lewis] Back

19   Q 119 Back

20   Ev 23 [Association of Colleges] Back

21   "Former pub became the centre of a web of bogus colleges", The Times, 21 May 2009,  Back

22   Ibid Back

23   Q 79 Back

24   Ev 25 [Home Office] Back

25   Ev 21 [Universities UK] Back

26   Q 45 Back

27   Q 139 Back

28   Ev 27 Back

29   Q 17  Back

30   Ev 24 [Association of Colleges] Back

31   Q 9  Back

32   Q 11 Back

33   Q 121 Back

34   Q 25 [Nick Lewis] Back

35   Q 129 Back

36   Qq 49-50 Back

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