Back From The Brink: UK Language Schools Prevail In Student Visa Battle

Until less than two weeks ago, the situation for some sectors of the EFL (English as a Foreign Language) profession in Britainwas looking distinctly precarious. The decision by the previous (Labour) Government to refuse entry to non-European Union students applying to follow courses in the UK but whose standard of English was below intermediate level  – which took effect as from March 3rd -  had begun to adversely affect enrolments at what is traditionally the language schools’ busiest period of the year. The former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, had apparently hoped to allay public fears about immigration by promising to reduce overseas student numbers and thereby ( unsuccessfully) retain power for himself and his party. Many MPs – especially Conservatives with constituencies along the south coast – were sympathetic to the language schools’ concerns and supported their campaign, but there was little they could do to help until after the General Election on May 6th.

Since taking office, the new Coalition Government has been pre-occupied with the country’s debt crisis and the need to cut public spending. There have been no indications that they might consider modifying the student visa restrictions implemented by their predecessors or indeed that the anti-immigration elements in the media would tolerate them doing so. Other threats to the language schools’ prospects have been lurking on the not-too-distant horizon: Tuition fees, for example, are not subject to VAT (Value Added Tax) but other sources of their income such as accommodation arrangement fees, could become so in the future. The VAT rate in the UKwill increase from 17.50% to 20% in 2011. Meanwhile, the ‘Sponsorship Scheme’ which forms an integral part of the Tier 4 Points–Based System (PBS) introduced as from April 1st 2009 has proved to be a time-consuming, bureaucratic and expensive distraction from the language schools’ main role and purpose – namely to ensure that their students improve their English and so are provided with value for their money. As one Principal has commented with some irritation: “ I’m not here to sponsor. I’m here to run aLanguageSchool”.

Suddenly, however, the clouds hovering over the EFL profession since March have been blown away. On July 8th in the High Court, Mr Justice Foskett ruled in favour of the appeal by English UK ( the Association representing 440 state and private language centres) against the decision by the former Home Secretary to raise the  level of English required , from the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference) classification of A1 (Elementary) to B1 (Intermediate) for incoming overseas students. As the ‘Study World’ organization pointed out in its assessment of the judicial review: “The change was not directly put before Parliament, but was made through a paragraph in the appendix to the immigration regulations which gave the UK Border Agency (UKBA) blanket power” in matters related to the General Student Visa (GSV). Mr Justice Foskett concluded that anything that “changed materially” the criteria should have been subjected to parliamentary process. He did not accept the attempt by the Home Office to portray the adjustments as “guidelines”. Nicola Carter of Pennington Solicitors, who represented English UK, stated after the case that “Creating an immigration system which both denies entry to those with unlawful intentions and allows theUK to retain its reputation for world-class English language teaching is a complex process involving decisions of cultural and economic importance. This ruling confirms that Parliament must be included in decisions which will significantly change the immigration system”.

English UK, meanwhile, estimated that the judgement had saved over 3,000 jobs and more than £600 million in foreign earnings for the UK economy – all of which could have been lost had the new regulations stayed in place. The outcome has been received with relief by Brighton’s “Argus” newspaper, which earlier this year had expressed fears that many of the leadingSussexlanguage schools would be forced to close. David Blackie, Director of International Education Connect Ltd, has welcomed it as “An Injection of Common Sense”. He considers that “The best language schools inBritainare among the best in the world. International education is something we continue to excel at. It is a key plank in theUK’s post-industrial age and so we should strive to build on its success”.

The media, however, was not unanimous in its reaction to Mr Justice Foskett’s ruling. ‘Reuters’ news agency described it as “A Visa Reprieve” for the English language schools. The right-wing ‘Daily Mail’ newspaper, evidently unhappy with the result, responded with a headline proclaiming  “Judge Opens Door To ‘Bogus’ Students: Visa Crackdown Overturned By High Court”, followed by statistics indicating that  “Last year 273,445 students were given visas to come to Britain for courses, nearly 50,000 more than in 2008” . They quoted un-named critics who claim that many of these “Cheat the system to get into the country and stay permanently”, as well as Sir Andrew Green of ‘Migrationwatch’ who declared that “ It is now absolutely essential that this massive loophole be closed by whatever formalities are necessary”. In the opinion of the “Daily Mail”, “The Conservative-led Government, for all its bluster, already appears to be losing its grip on immigration. The (new) Home Secretary, Theresa May, will now have to choose whether to remake the Labour rules”.  The “Daily Telegraph” was similarly unenthusiastic, accompanying its report on the judgement with ‘related articles’ about the  “tens of thousands of bogus students” inBritainand predicting that “more fake colleges will open”. From the UK Language Schools’ perspective all this will be viewed as mere carping with a descernible whiff of sour grapes. They are savouring a victory which has pulled many of them back from the abyss.

Filed under: Immigration & Visas | Posted on July 20th, 2010 by Colin D Gordon

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