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Blacklisted UK colleges take Border Agency to court

Student visa systems overhaul gets legal

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Exclusive Several UK colleges are taking the UK Border Agency to court after they were suspended from approving student visa applications.

Since that action, which hit 142 institutions, the Border Agency has gone further - it has suspended all applications from northern India, Nepal and Bangladesh. Colleges include both private and government-funded colleges.

Under the government's points-based immigration system, properly accredited colleges were able to give a visa-sponsoring license - essentially a letter verifying that a student was enrolled, and had paid, for a course in the UK. The student could then take that offer letter to their local embassy or consulate to get a UK student visa. If they didn't get a visa, the money would be refunded.

This is in the process of being moved onto an online system - the college part is already online and the Confirmation of Studies system will go live later this month. It is this move, some allege, which has led to the jump in applications in the last few weeks which led to the suspension of applications from India, Nepal and Bangladesh, and overwhelmed the system.

An angry college administrator told The Register that the system was a spectacular example of the government achieving the opposite of what it said it intended to achieve. He said: "There's no doubt there were some dodgy colleges out there, but clearing them out would be easy with a 'mystery shopper' type inspection.

"Instead they are trying to turn colleges into arms of the state and rewarding the truly dodgy colleges, which will simply walk away with students' money."

The Border Agency held a "stakeholders meeting" last week, where it emerged that the list of suspended colleges included state schools which have no licensing rights.

A spokesman for the UKBA said: "A number of state schools currently remain suspended from the register whilst we clear up their licence issues. Not including state schools, this leaves 90 colleges that are currently suspended."

Colleges must be accredited by a private organisation, on behalf of the Borders Agency and then by the Home Office. The 142 suspended colleges will now have to be inspected by a Borders Agency Visiting Officer although some will be reviewed without a visit.

Colleges complain they are punished for being honest - informing the UKBA that a student has gone missing, for instance, can end up looking like a black mark. They also said it was unlikely students would be working illegally given the state of the economy.

There also big questions over which colleges have been included on the banned list, and which have been left off.

Many colleges have warned of the dangers of bogus colleges in the past, and the Home Affairs Select Committee examined the issue last July.

The delays have also led to real dangers for agents in the students' home countries, who have taken money for courses and are now unable to tell students when they will able to start their courses.

The Border Agency advised students who have paid for courses but are unlikely to get visas in time to contact the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA) at www.ukcisa.org.uk (for students at publicly funded institutions) and the British Accreditation Committee (BAC) at www.the-bac.org (for students applying to independent further and higher education providers).

The Agency said that the requirement that students spend at least 50 per cent of study time in a classroom would not be reviewed - bad news for dental nurses or anyone else wanting a vocational qualification. A spokesman said the move to the new Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies system "further strengthens the control we have under Tier 4 of the Points Based System."

In other Border Agency news, MP Keith Vaz is calling for an investigation into the Agency's treatment of asylum seekers following allegations they were routinely mistreated and abused by staff. Whistleblower Louise Perrett told The Guardian: "I witnessed general hostility, rudeness and indifference towards clients. It was completely horrific. I highlighted my concerns to senior managers but I was just laughed at.

An Agency spokesman said it took such allegations seriously and expected the highest levels of integrity and behaviour from all its staff. ®

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