UK FE colleges discuss international opportunities

17 June, 2015

Successful use of agents for international student recruitment, prohibitive aspects of UK visa policy, offshore opportunities and shifts in global demand for English were among the topics for discussion as the UK’s state-funded further education (FE) college sector gathered in London last week.

A panel discussion at the AoC International Conference, featuring (l-r): Bharat Pamnani, Assistant Director of UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI); Geoff Glading, Regional Director of UKTI Education; AoC International Director, John Mountford; and Professor Rebecca Hughes, Director of Education at the British Council

The Association of Colleges (AoC) International Conference, the sixth such event for the body, brought together college members for a one-day event of seminars, panel discussions and break-out sessions.

Opening the conference, AoC International Director, John Mountford, cited optimism and challenges for the sector. He highlighted the huge progress in recruitment in Latin America, where “working collectively is a huge asset to the sector”. He also signposted a slight shift in the sector towards transnational education (TNE) delivery.

However, Professor Rebecca Hughes, Director of Education at the British Council, demonstrated some of the recruitment challenges in the FE college sector, saying international students had fallen from 77,165 in 2008/09 to 53,860 in 2012/13. She cited visa issues, the growth of the private-sector pathway model and increasing year 12 provision in sender countries as a reasons for this. Professor Hughes said that the FE sector needed to differentiate itself from the ‘bogus college’ sector, to focus on the quality of student experience and beware of ‘one-size-fits-all’ internationalisation.

Figures on sponsored visa issuance from Bharat Pamnani, Assistant Director of UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI), also underscored the declines. Using quarterly migration statistics released by the Home Office, he said 19,365 Tier 4 student visas were issued for FE in Oct-Dec 2014, compared with 32,406 in the same period in 2012.

In a lively session on Tier 4 visas, Pamnani gave an overview of recent regulatory changes. He said that the number of Tier 4 sponsors had fallen to 1,528 at the latest count, with more targeted visits and stringent checks being undertaken.

Regarding the UK’s new Secure English Language Test (SELT) system, he said that only two providers – Trinity College and Ielts – had met the criteria. Addressing concerns over capacity, he said all centres offered tests within 28 days as a service agreement. “We believe we can meet that demand,” he said.

Mountford questioned why Tier 4 sponsors were treated differently in terms of rights and procedures – including the fact that the university sector is not affected by the SELT changes – and lamented that FE colleges are bracketed with the private sector. “I think that leads to confusion about colleges and about students’ intentions,” he said. “Surely every sponsor should be treated fairly, not by the sector that they are in.”

Pamnani assured that each case is treated individually based on a range of “sophisticated intelligence” and that the UK post-election period now was a good time to lobby government for change over sector differentiation.

The use of agents was the theme of a presentation by Dr Sarah Liu, Director of International at Warwickshire College Group. Dr Liu said over 90 per cent of the non-EU students recruited by the group came through agents and shared her experiences of the benefits of using agents, including: helping source students of appropriate quality; local knowledge and unique resources. She imparted advice on supporting agents, monitoring performance and tailoring communications.

Meanwhile, in a session on English language trends, Liz Shepherd, Director – English Impact at the British Council, said there would be increased numbers of proficient students in years to come, following government investments in English language ability and the increasing number of English-medium education in non-native speaking countries. She also highlighted the emergence of alternative English study destinations such as the Philippines.

Elsewhere at the conference, Geoff Glading, Regional Director of UKTI Education gave an overview of the government’s international education strategy and offshore opportunities for FE colleges, and Samir Zaveri, Chief Executive of BMI Media, gave insights on demand for English language programmes and trends in Latin America.

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