Around 70 universities, colleges and private English language centres travelled to Brighton to give evidence on student visas to a special session of the Home Affairs Select Committee.
Witnesses travelled from as far away as Wales and Leicester to appear before the Committee's only open session to be held outside Westminster during its scrutiny of the Government's proposed changes to student visas.
They warned the chairman, Keith Vaz MP, that raising the student language requirement to B2 (equivalent to a high A-Level) risked sending large numbers of students to study in competitor nations such as the USA.
They wanted to see a better accreditation system and more information on their students, such as whether a visa had been granted, whether it had been used, and whether the student had arrived in or left the UK.
And while welcoming the new 11-month Student Visitor Visa, they were concerned that it contained fewer immigration safeguards than the Tier 4 route, and suggested that it be limited to centres holding Highly Trusted Sponsor status. "We want to be able to tell someone if students are leaving the course. We don't want this to be seen as a loophole," said John Peel of British Study Centres.
Mr Vaz, who promised that the committee would complete its report as quickly as possible, started by asking witnesses filling the council chamber at Brighton Town Hall: "I assume by your presence here today every single one of your colleges will be affected... and you will lose students. How many of you will lose students?" he asked. Every hand in the room rose. "That gives us some kind of indication," he remarked. One representative commented: "The damage is already done with B1: student numbers are already down 40 per cent at some schools."
Caroline Lucas, the Brighton MP who organised the meeting, said international education was "a major economic issue". She added: "I do think this issue can be won. There is cross-party support that there are better ways of resolving this problem.
"The message is very loud and clear that these schools and colleges need a period of stability and certainty but are very happy to have a further tightening of accreditation and regulation. But requiring students to have a higher level of English really does risk the future of schools and colleges."
Tony Millns, chief executive of English UK, outlining the size of the sector to the select committee MPs, said the international education sector was growing, and was one of the "bright spots" in the UK economy.
There was an opening discussion about whether the accreditation system should be amended. Andrew Sutherland of the London International Study Centre thought it might be "the way forward" to bring together UKBA and British Council inspections. Mark Venus of the Bournemouth School of English was concerned that the UKBA was giving different advice to different schools. "We need stability and consistence of approach," he said.
Michael Cornes of Study Group reiterated the need for consistency. "Are you saying there is no problem if there is more than one organisation doing this as long as they are singing from the same hymn sheet?" asked Mr Vaz. Mr Cornes replied that he always preferred to have more than one accrediting body. He made the additional point that UKBA rules, such as those concerning drop-out rates, often had a disproportionate impact on smaller institutions.
There followed a discussion about bogus colleges, where the MPs were told that the subject "dominated" the public debate. Bev Garth, EF's Director of Operations for the UK and Ireland, said a member of the UK Border Agency would see straight away that it was "not a bona fide organisation" if they walked into a bogus college. "I think bogus colleges have been eliminated... they're not an issue any more," added a representative of City College in Brighton.
Mr Vaz was curious about the massive surge in Bangladeshi students since the introduction of the Points-Based System. Sue Edwards of Kaplan replied that both the Points Based System and Highly-Trusted Sponsor status had been introduced recently. Neither system was perfect. Should entry clearance officers be allowed to interview students, asked Mr Vaz. "That's still happening," said Ms Edwards.
The agenda then turned to agents: how many centres used them, asked Mr Vaz. Sue Edwards of Kaplan said most reputable colleges worked with agents to screen students and in organisations such as hers the systems had been in place for many years. Tony Millns explained that English UK had recently created a Partner Agency scheme, which was a form of accreditation for trusted agents. He was asked to provide more information on this for the select committee.
Mr Millns also raised the question of data protection, the reason given by the UKBA for not providing information to sponsors about whether or not visas have been granted to students, and whether those students had arrived in the country. There should be no problem with students being asked to agree to a data protection waiver when applying for visas, he said.
Mr Vaz asked if it would be burdensome for education providers to give information on how much their students were working outside the course. There was a lively debate on this, with representatives pointing out that they could ask students but could not actually police the amount of work that was done.
Discussions then turned to student pathways to university and the question of a secure language test.
Mark Allen of Sussex Downs College said that two years ago, 95 per cent of students on their programmes would continue to study at a British university. "Fifteen to 20 per cent of those are now going to university elsewhere because of the obstacles put in their way. The danger this is causing long-term to the university sector is significant," he said.
Diane Schmitt of Nottingham Trent University told the committee that the language requirement was particularly unhelpful. "We know some countries' education systems don't do much speaking and listening because it's not logistically possible and the national examination at the end of their school system reflects this. Chinese students, for example, don't have an even proficiency profile."
Select Committee chairman Keith Vaz MP and members Nicola Blackwood MP, Steve McCabe MP and Bridget Phillipson MP then travelled to British Study Centres in Brighton where they met international students on different courses to talk about why they wanted to study in the UK.
by Susan Young (firstname.lastname@example.org)