The Government's target of closing up to a thousand private colleges offering sub-degree courses to international students risks causing great reputational damage to the rest of the sector, English UK chief executive Tony Millns told the organisation's annual conference.
He said the government wanted to cut student numbers by 70,000 to 80,000, which would mean the closure of many of the thousand colleges offering sub-degree level courses and in the main accredited by the BAC and ASIC.
"In Australia around 15 colleges went out of business taking student funds with them in the mid-1990s. I am talking about 400-500 closing. You can't isolate legitimate and genuine colleges from that kind of reputational damage to the UK. Our prestigious universities are going to have their reputations compromised by that," he said.
Leaving the Government alone would almost certainly ensure they got things wrong, and so English UK had a major job to mitigate public policy on behalf of the sector. Big issues included accreditation, the lack of evidence informing government decisions, and the unfair and possibly illegal CAS allocations.
Mr Millns said member centres would have strategic choices to make, such as whether to concentrate on EU and non-visa students, or those on student visitor visas and extended student visitor visas.
However, he said there were still helpful trends for the UK sector, including the exchange rate, and told the conference that 2010 had been a very successful year.
Sue Edwards, English UK chair, thanked Mr Millns for his mediation and negotiating skills "and sheer dogged persistence" during the past year, without which the sector would have been a lot worse off.
During an earlier conference session, Jeremy Oppenheim from the Border Agency promised that talks were going well with the QAA and the ISI over new inspection arrangements. "I am confident we will have a new position to announce in the very near future…literally in the coming weeks."
Mr Oppenheim also revealed that he had originally been sceptical about the introduction of the extended student visitor visa. "It was a clear concession outside the normal immigration rules very much as a result of evidence you provided us with during the consultation… I confess I was being sceptical but at the end of the day I have got to say although some of you thought we were setting you up to fail… the extension to 11 months seems to have been handled well and we haven't had a dramatic spike in numbers. I've spoken to ministers and I think they are content."
A creative piece of programming saw Mr Oppenheim's talk preceded by one from Carlos Vargas-Silva of The Migration Observatory at Oxford University, who proceded to demolish the idea that the Government has any evidence base for its policies on immigration.
Apart from the well-known shortcomings of the International Passenger Survey data, Dr Vargas-Silva pointed out the lack of evidence to support cited effects of immigration on social housing, public services, and even the attitude of ordinary people towards students who were only temporarily in the UK. "You have mismatched definitions leading to mismatched policies," he said.
Immigration lawyer Nichola Carter of Penningtons warned centres to be very careful in protecting their HTS status, and that it was also a good idea to write into contracts with students the consequences if they were found to be in breach of migration rules. It was vital to follow the set procedures and ask the right questions of prospective students, and to keep that documentation, she said. "If you've done everything the Border Agency is asking of you, then we can pull you out of trouble. Probably," she said.
Other highlights of a very successful conference were presentations on the development of CPD and a professional association for individual members in ELT, and a lively discussion on how the different approved secure English language tests compare across the CEFR.
A motion was also passed during the AGM which agreed to conduct quarterly surveys of a random sample of private sector members to get data on SVVs and ESVVs, in order to create an evidence base.
Sue Edwards, Chair of English UK, said: "Members feel there is a value to coming here even despite the current challenges which make them reluctant to leave their institutions. It's been a very good programme which has taken in the range of issues we are currently facing."
Over 150 delegates attended this year, with a rise in exhibitors.
Steve Phillips of Internexus-Regent's College, who was elected to the Board during the AGM, said: "It was as always a good conference: to be expected from the English UK team. There were lots of networking opportunities and Tony's two excellent sessions should be mentioned. Other highlights were the Penningtons Tier 4 and two very informative market intelligence sessions."