Bogus Colleges (1) The Beginning

One of the weapons in the armoury of the “More Means Worse” crowd is the notion that much of the provision of higher education is ‘bogus’.  Of course, this can be used flexibly such that everything, outside say Greats at Oxford, is ‘bogus’.  The accepted use is, however, that a ‘bogus’ college is one that is pretending to be a college – either defrauding a genuine student or perhaps with the connivance of a dishonest student.

‘Bogus’ colleges can operate in different ways – some just print certificates for people, some are used to access student loans, but the ones that excites politicians the most are those that are apparently used to sponsor students to gain visas.  At various points ministers claim that they have been successful at shutting them down, but it appears there is more still to be done.  Logically, therefore, the Home Office must be currently allowing bogus colleges to sponsor students – that seems extraordinary…

But… I had a look at these ‘bogus’ colleges that have been shut down.  Last year I submitted a FOI request to the Home Office on the following lines:

I understand that the Government has closed 700 Bogus Colleges. Would it be possible to have a list of these? I suppose that by ‘closed’, it might be meant that 700 Colleges were removed from the register of those able to sponsor students, probably at tier 4, but maybe other categories as well. The time frame should be from May 2010 to date.

The response I received was commendably clear (Ref 2826/33101). It included a list of Tier 4 Sponsors whose status appeared as “revoked” on UKVI records during period 1 May 2010 to 7 October 2014. It also contained the following clarifications:

Please note that the revocation of an educational establishment’s sponsor licence removes its ability to recruit students from outside the European Economic Area. It does not prevent it from operating or close it down.

Some previously revoked sponsors will appear on the current register of licensed sponsors where, for example: the licence has been reinstated; the sponsor successfully re-applied to join the register; or the business has been sold/taken over and a new licence obtained. The revocation of a licence is not a definite indication that a sponsor acted dishonestly or was a threat to immigration control.

These appear to be important clarifications. The list that was attached had 835 entries on it.  

Four days after I received the response to the FOI request the Prime Minister made a speech on immigration. He said “We clamped down on bogus students and stopped nearly 800 fake colleges bringing people in.” This seemed to be at odds with the clarification in the letter from the Home Office.  The Home Secretary told the House of Commons on Monday 5 January 2015:

Of course we want people who wish to come here to do genuine degrees at proper educational establishments, but the Government have been clearing up the abuse that was allowed to run rife with student visas under the previous Labour Government, and 800 colleges are no longer able to take in overseas students. We want the brightest and best to come to the UK, and that is exactly what our policies are destined to do.

Note that she used the more careful formulation of not being able to take in overseas students, but it caused me to revisit the list that I had been sent in October 2014.  The list contained duplicate names; colleges that have been struck off under different names.  The list contained names of colleges that have since resumed their place on the register (at least 44 of these – such as London Metropolitan University).

But, the list contained a series of places that appeared to be perfectly reputable, but were no longer on the list.  I counted 50 of these (and then stopped). These were providers like Berkshire College of Agriculture, Dartford Grammar School for Boys and Haberdashers’ Aske School for Girls. These appear to epitomise places that were very unlikely to act dishonestly or were a threat to immigration control. I imagine that for many, the tier 4 register was inappropriate for their business, or perhaps faced with the new duties they decided that they should no longer sponsor students. This may well also be the case for a number of the language schools represented on the list: it was supposed that as the requirements for year-long programmes at tier 4 were onerous, many would move to offer courses that could be taken by those possessing student visitor visas.

Obviously there were ‘bogus’ colleges on the list – a back-street operation in Barking was trading as the Royal College of London.  But, there could well be more pressure to remove sponsors who haven’t acted dishonestly or were a threat to immigration control.  We should also demand that the Home Office ensures that claims about closing ‘bogus’ colleges are properly referenced to accurate data.

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