SCOTTISH colleges are facing a ban on the recruitment of foreign students after failing tough new immigration rules.
The Herald has learned that at least six publicly funded colleges are seeking urgent talks with the Home Office after they were stripped of their highly trusted sponsor status following inquiries by the UK Border Agency (UKBA).
The UKBA sent inspectors into institutions as part of a crackdown on colleges being used as a front for illegal immigration. The Government agency regularly checks on sponsors of students, and can suspend the licence of a college if it finds evidence it is not fulfilling its duties.
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Even more colleges could be caught up in the controversy, and a number of UKBA inspections have yet to reach a conclusion.
The move is damaging because, from next month, only those with highly trusted status can recruit overseas students.
In addition, the colleges – which include Anniesland, Stow and Cardonald in Glasgow and Motherwell in North Lanarkshire – fear the demotion will hit their international reputation.
Previously the preserve of universities, the recruitment of overseas students has become an increasingly lucrative market for further education colleges, with some 2500 students currently enrolled in Scotland.
Recent estimates suggest these students bring in as much as £15 million a year in fees, with the value to the wider economy as much as £30m.
It is understood some of the demotions came after UKBA inspectors found attendance records were not being properly kept. International students have to sign attendance sheets every time they go to classes, but some colleges had been relying on lecturers to keep registers.
In addition, some colleges were automatically downgraded because more than 15% of their overseas students had left before the end of their course – a contravention of UKBA rules.
Last night, Scotland's Colleges, which represents college principals, said it was seeking urgent talks with the Home Office, the Scottish Government and Scotland Office to resolve the issue. John Spencer, the organisation's convener, said: "It is easy to understand why these rules exist, but it is nonetheless the case that they end up discriminating against colleges in Scotland.
"The loss of highly trusted status damages the reputation and prospects of the institution in attracting students to study with them.
"Furthermore, the changes being planned for April could see Scottish colleges unable to recruit internationally because they have fallen foul of the rules through circumstances beyond their control.
"These rules require urgent attention before that point to ensure international opportunities are not lost for the colleges and for the potential students wanting to come to Scotland."
Mr Spencer added that there was particular concern over the rule that automatically debars colleges if they lose 15% of their intake.
He said: "There are only six colleges in Scotland which have more than 100 international students enrolled, and many of the others have fewer than 50. In those circumstances, if a handful of students have to leave for entirely legitimate circumstances, the colleges can be penalised and stripped of their status."
Duncan McDougall, director of enterprise at Cardonald College, said: "Our priority is our current international students who have been working hard to gain a qualification. We will seek to work with the UKBA to ensure disruption to the students' studies is minimised."
The Westminster Government's reforms of the immigration system were introduced to tackle abuse and the rise of so-called bogus colleges.
Investigations by The Herald in 2007 revealed a number of bogus colleges operating in Glasgow that were fronts for visa scams.
Meanwhile, new Scottish Government figures show a one-year drop of close to 11% in further education employment, with numbers falling from 16,800 to 15,000 by the end of 2011.
Robin Parker, president of NUS Scotland, said: "We're concerned that such a cut might stretch the ability of colleges to deliver the frontline teaching quality and support services that students rely on to progress into employment or university."