Overseas Students Benefit Britain: Don’t Turn Them Away.

Scenario: Three overseas  students apply to come to Britain to study English: One is from South-East Asia , the second from Africa, the third from Latin America.  The UK Border Agency refuses them entry on the basis that they are not sufficiently fluent in the language. So instead they go to Australia, Canada and Trinidad & Tobago where they progress through the levels, take their exams , stay on to complete University courses and then go home. Thirty years later, one of them is a Cabinet Minister, the second is on the Board of a multinational company and the third is the owner of a successful trading enterprise.  All three have established extensive business and personal links with the countries where they were made to feel welcome. That doesn’t include Britain.

This hypothetical sequence could become routine if Gordon Brown gets his way. In his ‘ major speech’ on immigration on 12th November in Ealing , he announced a review of student visas to be carried out by the Home Office & the Department of Business, who have to report back to him by December 11th.  The Prime Minister seems especially keen on raising the “minimum level of course” for which students from outside the European Union will be allowed into the UK. At the moment, to qualify for entry under Tier 4 of the Points Based System (PBS) introduced in April 2009, applicants must prove that they have achieved at least CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference) A2 standard – that they can “understand basic instructions or take part in a basic factual conversation on a predictable topic” in English. This already rules out ‘beginners’ – those who have virtually no knowledge of the language. The even tougher measures now proposed by the PM would in effect  extend the barrier all the way up to Intermediate level .

Many members of English UK (The Association which represents the 400 private language schools and state sector colleges inspected and accredited by the British Council) are understandably furious. They have accused the Government of  “moving the goalposts” and arbitrarily changing the new regulations only a few months after they came into force. Tier 4 specifies that prospective students must acquire 40 points in order to be granted a visa: 30 points for a Certificate of Study from their Sponsor ( ie: an educational establishment on the Home Office’s  ‘Approved List’) and the remaining 10 points if they can show they have enough money to cover their course fees , plus living expenses which the UKBA (UK Border Agency) has set at £800 per month for Inner London and £600 per month for  anywhere else in the UK. Those wishing to follow courses of more than nine months must prove they can pay the first year of their fees and have at least £7200 (Inner London) or £5,400 (elsewhere in the UK) for their living costs.

Some overseas students prefer not to rely on financial support from their families back home, so look for part-time work to pay their way while here. The Prime Minister is under the mistaken illusion that they are thereby taking jobs that “would be better filled by young British workers”. In reality, foreign students are themselves having to compete for employment ,  traditionally in the service sector , with citizens from Poland and the nine other ‘accession countries’ which joined the European Union in May 2004. They are also currently restricted to a maximum of  20 hours work per week so what they do earn ( often at the minimum wage or less) is barely enough to meet  their daily expenses for food, accommodation and transport. Contrary to the Prime Minister’s views, there is indeed a strong case for amending the definition of ‘part-time’ to 25 hours per week. His reasons for ordering a review of the PBS are equally unconvincing. Even if some suspect Colleges have – as he claims – been “abusing applications for student visas from parts of China”, that’s no justification at all for penalizing the vast majority of approved educational establishments who are fully committed to abiding by Tier 4.

The British Council estimates the English language market to be worth £1.5 billion per annum. For many UK Universities, the fees they receive from overseas students represent a vital part of their income. ‘Cowboy’ schools running phoney courses and issuing bogus documents are nothing new. They’ve been around since the mid 1970’s. Despite constant pressure from the ELT profession, successive Labour & Conservative Governments have failed until recently to take any action. In his Ealing speech, Gordon Brown stated that the “the list of approved colleges has been cut from 4,000 to 1,800” .Any remaining ‘dodgy outfits’ can be easily identified and closed down.  So why the need for further measures? There can be but one explanation: To make overseas students the scapegoats for the continuing public concern about immigration. They are not the problem – and stopping them from coming here is not the solution. Doing so will damage both the country’s economy and its image abroad.








Filed under: Immigration & Visas | Posted on December 3rd, 2009 by Colin D Gordon

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