Throwing the baby out with the bathwater?


More than 500,000 students a year choose to learn English in Britain. That figure accounts for almost 43% of all students who choose to travel abroad to learn English. It is estimated that they contribute more than £1.5 billion to the UK economy every year. The UK is the second most popular destination for international students-second only to the United States.

However the last Government, in response to abuse of the system and the myriad of bogus colleges signing up,tightened up the system The difficulty has been and to some extent remains , in identifying those bogus students who have no intention of studying in the UK, but simply seek a route of entry.

Such so-called students have no qualms about deceiving bona fide education providers to obtain an offer of a place on a course that will go some way to securing their entry to the UK. English language courses have proven to be particularly susceptible to abuse by non-bona fide students. Between April and November 2009, UK Border Agency data show that almost a third of English language schools licensed under tier 4 voluntarily notified UKBA of more than 1,100 students who had failed to enrol or who had dropped out of their course of study. The tier 4 student visa can be very attractive to economic migrants because of the generous entitlements that such visas provide to those who wish to study here. The ability to work part-time during term time and full-time during vacations, and to bring family members to the UK, are two important privileges that help the UK to compete with other countries and attract the brightest and the best to study here.

Since the launch of the register of education and training providers, by the former Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills in January 2005, more than 300 bogus colleges have needed to be removed from that register. The introduction of tier 4, the student route of the points-based system, along with sponsor licensing, has gone some way in the Governments eyes  to addressing the problem of bogus colleges. Under the new system, students are tied to their sponsoring institution and must now seek the Governments permission   to change institution.  Prior to the introduction of the points-based system, it was estimated that up to 50,000 students could be using the student visa system as a way of staying in the United Kingdom illegally.

On 12 November 2009, only months after the system was put in place, the then Prime Minister ordered a review of it due to concerns about those coming in to study at below degree level. But there are growing concerns that the new requirements pursuant to the Review  are far  too onerous. Particularly the requirement for a basic standard of English. The minimum level of language study permitted under tier 4 is level B2 of the common European framework of reference for languages. That means that students must be at least proficient to level B1 before they can use tier 4 and enjoy the entitlements that the route confers. The definition of B1 competence, which is roughly the equivalent of about an A* GCSE, is that a student can “understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc. Can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken. Can produce simple connected text on topics which are familiar or of personal interest. Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes & ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.”

Heck, I am not sure I could pass this test.

And the paperwork that needs to be filled in by applicants  is also a huge challenge, even for the most literate. Its not hard to see why   some UK companies  providing English language support are concerned about a diminishing market, asking why come to England to study English if you are  already at this level .  Clearly a balance has to be struck between protecting the system against abuse and attracting  bona fide students to the UK.  But there are some doubts about whether or not we have got this right.  Of course students whose English language ability is not at the appropriate  level are still permitted to come to the UK to develop it, using the student visitor route, which allows a person to come to the UK for up to six months. But its not the same.  The  Government, though, does seem at least to be listening. Minister James Brokenshire  has said “the Minister for Immigration intends to undertake a thorough evaluation of the student system in the coming weeks and months, to  ensure that the measures currently in place strike the right balance between providing a user-friendly route for bona fide students and education providers and keeping out those who would seek to abuse the student system”, which may hold out some hope for beleaguered English language teaching institutions. But we shall have to see.



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