Student Visas - Home Affairs Committee Contents

Written evidence submitted by The British Accreditation Council for Independent Further and Higher Education (BAC) (SV40)


BAC has for over 25 years been the principal accreditor of the independent further and higher education sectors beyond the English language schools. During this period (as an entirely voluntary accreditor until 2007 and thereafter in performing our quasi-regulatory duties under UKBA's approval mechanisms), we have developed considerable expertise regarding the independent education sector. We were an early member of UKBA's Joint Education Taskforce and were closely involved in the consultations around the design and implementation of Tier 4 of the Points Based System (PBS). Throughout our history, we have supported the wish to introduce greater regulation into the independent further and higher education sectors, as partly set out within the Guidance for Tier 4 Sponsors.[60] Although on occasion our advice has not been accepted by UKBA, we consider that the PBS has, and will continue to have, a positive impact on the sector overall. It is in this spirit that our submission to the Home Affairs Select Committee is made regarding the proposed restrictions to Tier 4.

We would be happy to give oral evidence to the Committee if invited to do so.


  • The Government's aim appears to be two-fold: to make changes to the Tier 4 route in order to eliminate abuse, and to reduce significantly the number of international students coming to the UK as a means of reducing net migration.
  • BAC supports all efforts to minimise abuse of Tier 4 by any individuals who are not genuine or serious students, but does not support cuts to the number of international students and considers it inappropriate to equate them with permanent, economic migrants.
  • UKBA's research and analysis of data so far appears to be incomplete, inaccurate and misleading, raising the concern that proposals for changes to the current system are misinformed and hence will be both ineffective and damaging.
  • BAC urges a renewed focus on educational quality and for this to be reflected within the Tier 4 rules.
  • This quality can be found in further education below degree level as easily as in higher education and the intrinsic value of FE must be recognised.
  • UK further education, particularly in the private sector, offers essential pathways to higher education, widening access to UK and international students.
  • BAC strongly supports an in-depth review of approved Accreditation Bodies in order to improve the consistency and transparency of the system, helping better to safeguard educational quality.


1.  In her statements to Parliament and in the foreword to UKBA's December 2010 document The Student Immigration System: A Consultation[61] the Home Secretary has articulated the Government's intention to introduce new and more effective controls in pursuit of its overarching aim of reducing immigration. International students have been included in the Government's strategy of reduction partly because of their large number relative to other immigration categories and partly because a "net migrant" is defined as being any individual still in the country after 12 months. It may be argued that genuine students should not be considered immigrants for the purpose of these reductions, as their objective is education not settlement and the Government's own figures show that the overwhelming majority depart the UK after the completion of their studies. Given the 12-month measure's limited usefulness as an indicator of long-term trends, the public interest might better be served by a focus on controlling the right to settle in the UK and taking effective action against those who overstay their leave, alongside minimising abuse in the existing system.

2.  While it would be regrettable if genuine international students were to fall victim to any political impetus to be tough on immigration, some abuse of the student immigration system persists, and BAC strongly supports the efforts of Government and the education sector to minimise this abuse. BAC considers that the quality of the education provided to international students is of paramount importance, that the highest-quality institutions attract the most genuine students, and that these institutions with the support of UKBA are best placed to exclude any individuals whose main motivation for entering the UK is not educational. The key to giving only high-quality institutions the responsibility of sponsoring international students is a robust system of institutional accreditation and licensing. With this in place, there would be a far less pressing need to impose quantitative measures on educational institutions striving to be fully compliant, as is the case under the current system of Highly Trusted Sponsors. This implies a more rigorous approach to accreditation, based on common and consistent standards, than is sometimes achieved under the current arrangements for Tier 4.


3.  While BAC very much supports one of the Tier 4 review's primary objectives of reducing abuse within the system, we have some concerns with the consultation. For example, the leading nature of certain questions posed within the consultation document; the limited range of answers offered; the restricted ability respondents have to challenge some apparently tenuous assumptions within the document; and the limited detail accompanying a number of the proposals, which can make a definitive answer to the question difficult. In view of these concerns and of the accelerated timetable which will be required to implement changes by UKBA's intended deadline of April, we must question how effective the consultation can be in informing policy decisions. These questions are compounded by a close reading of the expository paragraphs in the consultation document and its accompanying document Overseas Students in the Immigration System: Types of Institutions and Levels of Study,[62] which present a number of assertions based on often incomplete statistical research, both the accuracy and rigour of which BAC has already challenged with UKBA.

4.  An example which highlights the misleading nature of the research is the "analysis of student compliance", which uses two sample groups: universities with Highly Trusted Sponsor status (ie the "best" of the public sector), and privately funded FE/HE providers which have been investigated by UKBA "because there are concerns over suspected abuse" (ie the "worst" of the private sector). The document itself states that "the analysis for the university sample is not comparable with that of the non-university sample", but yet goes on to draw such comparisons. UKBA represents this and other similarly inconsistent analyses as evidence within the main consultation document, seemingly allowing the misleading conclusions to inform its policy proposals and consultation questions. BAC suggests it may be prudent to request that UKBA or an independent body carry out further in-depth and objective research in order to provide a sound evidential base on which to make any changes to the current international student visa system, a system which has undergone a series of rapid changes, the last of which were implemented only a few months ago.


5.  In recent months the Government has expressed its desire to restrict student visas to only the "brightest and best" and its commitment to protecting the UK's "world-class educational institutions". BAC welcomes the renewed focus signified by these statements on the educational experience of international students and would support a gradual reorienting of immigration procedures to reflect more qualitative indicators of educational excellence in addition to quantitative indicators of immigration compliance. However, we must question whether the term "brightest and best" is any more than a political slogan, which excludes students with the potential to achieve academically who have perhaps not had the opportunity to succeed within an appropriately focused learning environment and who are working their way up the ladder of educational success in the more nurturing and supportive environment of British further and higher education. We consider that some of the specific proposals in UKBA's consultation document would have a deleterious effect on both the UK's ability to attract these students and on the viability of the institutions which offer them such opportunities, if implemented in full. BAC's inspectors pay particular attention to the nature, appropriateness and quality of the support (both academic and pastoral) which colleges seeking accreditation give to their students. Provision for the "brightest and best" should not, in our view, simply remove the ladder for progression from the many international students who benefit from this.

6.  UKBA's consultation document makes extensive mention of bestowing further benefits on Highly Trusted Sponsors (HTS) and removing corresponding entitlements from standard, A-rated sponsors (for example, allowing only sponsors with HTS to run programmes at NQF/QCF levels 4 and 5). BAC would not support such a move before a comprehensive review of the existing arrangements for HTS has been completed, taking the views of UKBA's corporate partners into account. While UKBA has previously assured stakeholders that a holistic approach would be adopted in considering HTS applications, BAC has evidence that so far this has not been the case, leading to a number of high-quality independent institutions being refused HTS status simply for marginally exceeding the specified 5% threshold for reporting absentee students and other purely quantitative measures. The review of HTS must consider whether existing criteria are appropriate, how to ensure transparency and consistency in UKBA's decisions to award HTS, and whether, in addition to criteria focusing on immigration compliance, more academically focused measures could usefully be incorporated.


7.  A proper recognition of the objective and value of education is central to evaluating the UKBA proposal to remove or reduce access to sub-degree programmes. In our experience, the transferable knowledge and skills learned on a course at NQF/QCF 3 or 4 can be just as essential to today's worker as the more intellectually rigorous pursuit of a Bachelor's degree. Furthermore, students in some countries may have no opportunity to study an appropriate course at a lower level before completing their training in the UK, particularly within vocational and highly specialised fields and even more so in countries such as Japan with no equivalent to the UK's Year 13. There are a variety of fields and subjects in which the UK is a world leader and which can be difficult to access elsewhere, such as health and safety, engineering, specialised diving training, aviation, etc.; thus, restricting educational visas to only degree-level courses and above would effectively bar students from large parts of the world from either taking their first steps into these fields or keeping their skills and knowledge up to date. UK vocational training enjoys an excellent international reputation which is founded upon sub-degree level courses, and the viability of many providers of such courses would be in question should the minimum level open to international students be indiscriminately raised.

8.  While there is considerable intrinsic worth in much of the education being provided below degree level in the UK, we must also recognise the interdependent nature of the education sector, connecting further and higher education at public and private providers. The private further education sector in particular acts as an important "feeder" of international students into the public higher education sector, as explained in paragraph 10. Universities UK and the British Council estimate that around 40% of international students at UK universities were previously enrolled on a sub-degree level programme in a non-university institution in the UK. Our own figures suggest that at least 10% of all international students enrolled on UK university degrees are taking these at BAC-accredited institutions.

9.  If major cuts in the number of student visas were to be achieved primarily by restricting access to sub-degree level programmes, there would be a disproportionate and severely negative impact on the private further education sector: at BAC-accredited institutions, general visa students account for around 50% of their enrolments. Public FE colleges would also be badly hit. Much of the UK's most highly regarded specialised and vocational training takes place within private providers, most of it at sub-degree level, so cuts here would hurt the UK's growing reputation in this area as well as damaging some very successful businesses. As indicated above, the FE sector acts as a crucial pathway to higher education (BAC-accredited institutions alone are estimated to send 26,000 completing students on to an HE institution) and any reduction in its ability to do so would have a direct, negative impact on the intake of international students at UK universities. A 100% reduction in the issuing of visas for sub-degree courses could subsequently lead to a reduction of 40% of international students enrolling in UK universities. Therefore, we would suggest that the proposal to restrict study to degree level only should not be pursued and it would be prudent for UKBA to consider fully the implications of such a move, which would risk both the financial viability of specialised providers of high quality further education and the key pathways for international students into our universities, to which they contribute both crucial revenue and invaluable cultural enrichment.


10.  The private post-16 sector which BAC has overseen since 1984 provides a variety of routes for international students to access higher education in the UK. Independent sixth form and tutorial colleges have for decades prepared domestic and international students for university entrance, guiding them successfully through GCSEs and A levels while also helping them to improve their English language ability and adapt generally to the requirements of education and life in the UK. More recently, BAC has inspected and accredited a growing number of "embedded colleges", operating from within university campuses. These can improve access to UK higher education for international students who benefit from a foundation year of mixed academic content, English language and study skills in order to get the most out of their degree courses. Because of their intensive study methods and their specialist focus, these "embedded colleges" have been seen by many universities as a more effective means of providing foundation studies for their international students than the alternative of supportive studies within the first year of a degree programme. BAC accredits four large groups of colleges embedded at over 30 different universities, including Sussex, Leicester, Liverpool, Glasgow and Westminster.

11.  Independent providers also now present new opportunities to international students who wish to study for UK university degrees at a smaller institution which can offer time and cost-efficient modes of study in a supportive environment. Almost 200 BAC-accredited institutions teach full UK university degree programmes, while many more offer programmes which can be "topped up" by students progressing to the second or third year of a degree programme at the awarding university itself. This can be an especially attractive option to those who may initially struggle to meet the full fees charged to international students by UK universities or who may need additional assistance in adjusting to the UK education system from staff experienced in this transition. The route of a gradual progression towards a degree is to many students an attractive, more accessible and less intimidating alternative to enrolling directly on a Bachelor's degree programme, and many universities have now developed agreements with awarding bodies and chartered institutes to facilitate this. One example is Oxford Brookes University, which recognises the passing of professional exams from the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants as contributing towards its BSc in Applied Accounting. Another is the University of Northampton, which allows the topping up of a professional postgraduate diploma from the Chartered Institute of Marketing to its own MA in Marketing. Private and public sector colleges alike have substantial experience of progressing students from their HND programmes to a linked university degree via a top-up year. Such progression pathways proliferate especially in the private colleges accredited by BAC and would be under particular threat from enforced reductions to the number of visas issued, as international students typically need to apply for a new visa from UKBA after the completion of each stage. UKBA's current proposals may threaten such staged education.


12.  Within its review of the student immigration system, UKBA has indicated that it might decide to close or severely restrict the Tier 1 (Post Study Work) route which allows students of certain higher level courses to stay and work in the UK for two years after they graduate. PSW is a clear benefit to choosing the UK as a higher education destination, attractive to many international students and an innovation successful enough to have been imitated by competitor countries including Canada. For this reason, PSW increases the UK's popularity to international students and would be expected to drive up the number of student visa applications. Rather than closing PSW entirely, there could be an argument for PSW becoming more discriminating in its eligibility criteria so that it becomes a route to employment for only the most valuable workers, e.g. graduates of higher level degrees or professional members of certain chartered institutes. Another option would be to reduce the period of leave granted under PSW from two years to one year. However the Government decides to act on PSW, it is vitally important that fair transitional arrangements are put in place so that the benefit is not seen to be snatched away from current students on PSW-eligible courses, a move which would inevitably engender significant bad feeling amongst those who have invested their future in the UK.

13.  An increasingly globalised market in education sees the UK competing against other English-speaking countries, and in particular the USA, Canada and Australia. The flow of students between different countries brings with it recognised benefits to cultural exchange, international relations and the economy of host nations. The ability of the UK to attract these international students depends largely on three factors: the opportunity for students to improve their English proficiency both through study and through daily interaction with native speakers; the reputation of UK education as being of high quality; and the perceived or actual barriers to being accepted for study in the UK. Any policy which aims to reduce the number of student visas issued will have an impact on this last factor. The effect of any specific new restrictions moreover will combine with the cumulative psychological impact on potential students of frequent rule changes, continuous tightening of eligibility criteria and negative public statements, perhaps giving the impression that, as far as education is concerned, the UK is "closed for business".


14.  The perceived high quality of British further and higher education could be significantly strengthened by UKBA taking forward the proposal within the current review to focus on the quality of the work of the accreditation bodies to ensure consistently high standards within all private sector providers, which was highlighted by the Committee's Eleventh Report of Session 2008-09[63]. Whilst BAC is confident in the rigour and transparency of its own operations, we can see much to be gained from a detailed review of all the approved accreditation bodies and the premises on which approval was awarded. We find it difficult to support the current situation in which colleges which are refused accreditation by BAC (or which have their accreditation withdrawn following our due process) can almost immediately be accredited by another body and thereby regain their Tier 4 sponsor licence. We have long pressed for greater clarity in the division of responsibility between UKBA and the accreditation bodies, for more consistency in the standards applied by the different accreditation bodies, and for closer engagement of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in this licensing system for private education. UKBA needs to be confident that accredited private providers are not only trusted sponsors of migrants but also high-quality educators of young people and adults alike. To be so, it must have confidence in the accreditation bodies that inspect and accredit these providers.

January 2011

60 Back

61 Back

62 Back

63 Back

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 25 March 2011