Page last updated at 08:56 GMT, Saturday, 16 January 2010

Decision time for overseas students

By Mike Baker

graduation ceremony
Overseas students bring valuable revenue

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One of the greatest assets of UK education plc is the global importance of the English language.

It is a great boon to British universities, boarding schools and - in particular - to the thriving sector which teaches English as a foreign language.

It is worth billions of pounds a year to the UK economy, through direct and indirect spending by overseas students who come to Britain to study.

Which is why there is currently a deep level of anxiety in the sector over an impending government decision, which many fear will make it much harder for students to gain visas for study in the UK.

'Totally disastrous'

It has arisen from a government review of the workings of the system for issuing immigration visas to adult students applying to come to the UK from outside the EU.

The prime minister unexpectedly launched that review last November. It may have been mere coincidence, but the review was announced at a time when immigration was in the news following an appearance on the BBC's Question Time by the BNP leader, Nick Griffin.

The internal review, conducted by the UK Border Agency, is now complete. It has sent a report to Home Secretary Alan Johnson and Business Secretary Lord Mandelson. Their verdict is awaited.

English UK, which represents colleges that teach English as a foreign language, has warned that if the original proposals of the review are retained it will prove "totally disastrous" for the sector.

There are some powerful, but competing, forces at play here. On one side, there is the need to at least maintain, and ideally increase, the number of overseas students coming to Britain, not only to language schools, but also to study at universities.

Colleges and universities rely heavily on overseas student fees. And, in many parts of the country, language schools are a major employer and a key source of income to families who host foreign students as paying guests.

'Strong borders'

On the other side of the argument are legitimate concerns that some long-term immigrants, and potential terrorists, could use the student route to gain illegal entry to Britain.

Two factors have made these concerns particularly sensitive: the involvement of overseas students in terrorist scares and the rise of immigration as an issue in electoral politics, particularly with the general election looming.

Announcing the review, Gordon Brown said it was aimed at ensuring the UK has "strong borders" and "rigorous enforcement" of the laws to stop illegal immigration.

The review proposed that there should be mandatory tests of English language ability for students coming to study courses above a certain level.

It also proposed that courses below a certain level should no longer be open to those coming to the UK on student visas.

And this would be on top of a change, introduced last March, requiring overseas students wanting to study English here to show proof that they have already achieved a certain level of study in English.

There is now talk that this proof may require students to pass one of a prescribed list of English language qualifications.

This change, which is also being reviewed, has caused particular anger as English language schools say it puts them at a distinct disadvantage compared to other countries.

The USA, Canada, and Australia are all keen competitors to the UK for English language courses. None of them requires students to show proof that they have already studied a language as a condition of gaining an entry visa.

Trying to be tactful, Michael Carrier of the British Council - which promotes UK education abroad - says the idea of "telling students who want to study English that they have to already be able to speak English is….let's just say, unfortunate".

Economic damage

It is not just the English language sector that is alarmed. Universities are worried that students applying for post-graduate courses in subjects, such as sciences, where they have had no previous need to learn English may be excluded from getting visas.

Universities are also concerned that it could hit undergraduate recruitment since many students who come here to study English go on to apply to take their degrees here. Overseas student fees are particularly important to universities as they face a funding squeeze on domestic students.

For its part, the UK Border Agency, which has conducted the review, insists the changes will only affect adults and those applying to study in the UK for more than 6 months. School-age students or those on short courses will not be affected.

It also argues that it is "not unreasonable" to expect students coming here to be taught a course in English to have a certain level of language ability before they arrive.

In the end, ministers - including the prime minister, to whom the final recommendation will be sent - must make a decision that balances two political lobbies: on the one side, those who want tighter immigration control and, on the other, those concerned at the economic and cultural damage that would flow from choking off overseas student demand.

Mike Baker is an education writer and broadcaster.

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