English UK explains UK ELT to the new Parliament
New MPs, members of the House of Lords and government officials all attended a packed briefing about the value of ELT and FE international students to the UK on Wednesday 8 January.
The All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Students' roundtable meeting, organised by English UK and the Association of Colleges (AoC), covered the international education strategy, GREAT funding, ID card travel and difficulties around visas in some newer markets.
English UK Chair Steve Phillips and English UK Chief Executive Sarah Cooper were positive about the session. "We jointly got the message across and it was good to have the DIT here," said Steve while Sarah said she was encouraged by an extremely positive discussion. "We brought a lot of points to the attention of the officers of the APPG, showed the deep potential of the ELT and FE sectors to contribute to the growth target in the international education strategy and explored how we could overcome potential barriers to that."
Chairing the meeting in the House of Lords, Alison Thewliss MP said the contribution of the two sectors to the UK economy was "vital but overlooked" and that an estimated 40% of international students at our universities had previously studied in ELT centres.
Panellists included Steve Phillips of British Study Centres, Jane Dancaster of the Wimbledon School of English and Spencer Fordham of the Capital School of English in Bournemouth. The AoC team were International Director Emma Meredith with Mark Allen of East Sussex College, Sarah Gore of Edinburgh College, Shelagh Legrave of Chichester College.
International Education Strategy "a fantastic beginning"
Sarah said the Government's International Education Strategy had been "a fantastic beginning" with its support for growth. She was encouraged by recent Home Office policy showing "deep recognition of the complexity and contribution of the education sector."
"The challenges are because most strategy is focused on higher education - which isn't surprising because it brings in the big bucks - but our sector is at the heart of the industry. People come into an ELT centre or FE college at the start of their journey and it used to be a seamless transition to the next stage.
"You came in to study English and you chose what to do next – the FE college in which I worked employed teachers as UCAS advisors for students who came for a year, immersed themselves in the language, went to a university of their choice for a degree and maybe a master's and then went home. That scene has changed but ELT is still at the heart of the industry and we're looking for more support for small businesses which make up most of the ELT industry to help them make the most of the opportunities out there."
Issues raised during the session included the need for GREAT funding to be used to market the UK in Europe after we leave the EU, the effects of losing ID card travel and difficulties around visas in some newer markets. Others highlighted by panelists to peers and MPs were:
Students in the UK having to return home to apply for visas for new courses
Spencer said: "This is our language and we should be encouraging people to come here and learn it in its country of origin. Agencies and government groups are looking at alternative destinations because of the restrictions in place. We are looking for more seamless transition for students to go on to FE and HE. The man in the street would say: why can't they go on to university without having to go home first?"
Mark said he might be talking to a parent considering putting their child through six years of education in the UK, but without knowing whether they would get a visa to move on to each new stage. "It's amazing we are doing as well as we are. It's because of the hard work of the people in this room, and their adaptation and innovation."
Encouraging EU students after Brexit
"We would welcome support," said Sarah. "We have been doing masses of work to reassure and say we're still open. It's been positive because the pound is so weak but we would really welcome getting government support on getting that nice clear message to the EU that this is what's going to happen, when it's going to happen and that you'll be welcome."
"The message that's gone out in the last three or four years has eroded our industry," said Spencer.
Turkish visa problems
Steve said Turkey is a top ten market for UK ELT "but at the moment it's very difficult. We're up to the highest level of refusals for a considerable time, with a third of students refused. We are losing a lot of business at the moment."
The aftermath of the TOIEC scandal
Explaining the very tight security around English exams to be used for visa purposes, Jane said: "It has made it a lot more difficult for students to access exams… it was terrible what went on in that exam centre but it doesn't mean all exam centres are like that."
Short term study visas aren't long enough for students in FE colleges
Mark said fewer than half of FE colleges have a Tier 4 sponsor licence and it was hard to get them to meet specific demand, such as the South Eastern Asian demand for vocational training.
The six-month short-term study visa was not long enough for an academic course and the 11-month version was only available for pure English courses, not for students who wanted to combine English with another subject. He also highlighted the jeopardy to Tier 4 status from Ofsted judgments.
Paul Jeffrey, head of student migration policy at the Home Office, also responded to the discussion, saying that it was "a reasonable assumption" that in future short-term students would not have to apply for a visa in advance, and that there would be a move to a single global system for long-term stays. "I'm careful about what to say this morning as there is plenty to discuss with ministers but it's not a bad thing that nothing I've heard this morning is new to me and I can take this forward with our ministers," he said.
Craig McKinley, MP for South Thanet, was bullish about the future for UK ELT and FE. "Let's stop some of the fear – there will be no visas and the ID card issue will be solved one way or the other," he said.
GREAT funding to market the UK in Europe after we leave the EU
Geoff Gladding, the DIT's education sector team lead, said that the issue around the GREAT campaign was "very much on our radar" while there would be a progress report on the International Education Strategy a year on, in mid 2020. He mentioned a "cautious good start" to exploring a broader skills partnership with English UK, adding "We'll build on that. It's not the end of the story. The government is committed to supporting the sector." The government now had a much better joined-up approach to international strategy than before, he added.
Baroness Uddin, one of the APPG panel, asked about future markets and Mr Gladding said five key areas of focus had been planned "where we feel the government can support to grow". These included developing a campaign in sub-Saharan Africa. "We always have ears open on where and what should be doing. The sector is talking to us about Europe – it's not clear what role there could be in delivering the international education strategy there but we're looking and hope it will become clearer."
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