Bogus Colleges (6): the freedom of information

I keep returning to an aspect of the UK Government’s approach to immigration: the use of data about ‘bogus colleges’ to demonstrate that there has been abuses of the student visa system.  This is done to: (a) demonstrate the energy of the Home Office in dealing with this and (b) to justify additional measures.  I have shown, I think, in several blog posts on this topic that the way that government uses an overall number of providers who have been removed from the register is misleading.

In her speech to the Conservative Party Conference on 4 October 2016  Amber Rudd said:

The Conservative-led coalition stopped 875 bogus colleges bringing in overseas students, tackled abuse of student visas, and reformed the family system.

Now, I know that is unlikely.  It’s clear that at least 875 providers will have been removed from the register.  In October 2015 there were 890 providers on the list of those removed. In October 2014 there were 835 on the list. But the lists provided are of colleges and schools who have at any time been removed, even if they now have a new entry (because they changed name, ownership or returned after a period of suspension) or if they are an entirely reputable provider who has just stopped courses that need a tier 4 visa (schools who no longer take international students or language schools who now only offer shorter courses).

So I asked for another list of the providers who were no longer on the list.  I asked for that on 4 October 2016 and was promptly told that the Home Office would respond by 1 November 2016, 20 working days after my FOI request.

On 2 November I reminded the Home Office that they’d said they’d respond by 1 November.

On 15 November I reminded the Home Office, pointing out they were now 10 working days after 1 November.

On 29 November  I reminded the Home Office, pointing out they were now 20 working days after 1 November, double the time they should have taken.

On 5 December I asked the Home Office to undertake an internal review of their inability to meet the FOI response time.

On 6 December, the Home Office replied.  They regretted they hadn’t met the response time, and assured me that “we are dealing with your request and we will send you a full reply as soon as we can”.  They did not say that they’d undertake an internal review.

On 5 January 2017  I again asked the Home Office to undertake an internal review of their inability to meet the FOI response time as it was now three months after my request.

On 6 January, the Home Office replied, with their standard first response letter again, saying that they’d reply within 20 days.

On 13 January, the Home Office replied with their template letter for having conducted an internal review. They said:

I apologise on behalf of the department for the length of time which it is taking to provide you with a substantive response to your request.  The policy area has been informed of your concerns and I can confirm that your request is under active consideration and is being treated as a matter of priority.

As of 10 February, we’ve now had 20 working days since an internal review at the Home Office confirmed that they not met the FOI deadline, nor had they informed me that there was any reason why they could not meet the deadline.  20 working days is the standard set for responses to FOI requests, but even with the policy area treating this as a ‘priority’ they haven’t met that deadline.  I don’t know how many ‘working days’ the Home Office had over Christmas, but assuming they didn’t come in at all, they’ve now had at least 87 days.  I also know that the data they have provided me in the past has simply been a download of the names of providers who have been flagged as being removed from the register.  That should be a five minute job.  Why hasn’t that been possible in four months?

I’ve now raised this with the Information Commissioner.  But why should I need to?  Ministers are clearly very proud of the action they took to stop ‘bogus colleges’.  In the Committee Stage of the Higher Education and Research Bill, Lord Younger noted that:

I should like to make clear the Government’s position on international students generally. … I make no apology that, when we came to power in 2010, we took steps to rid the system of abuse that was then rife. No one denies now that action needed to be taken then. More than 900 institutions lost the ability to bring in international students.

In October 2016 the Home Secretary said 875 bogus colleges had been stopped by the coalition – now the number stands at over 900.  Why won’t they release the names of the providers concerned?

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