More than three dozen overseas students enrolled at a Glasgow college could face deportation inside the next two months after a number of institutions within Scotland's further education sector failed to meet new immigration rules.
Cardonald College in the south west of Glasgow yesterday saw its sponsor license revoked, leaving 41 students from outside the European Union facing forced removal from the UK without a complete HNC or HND qualification in 60 days unless a new sponsor can be found.
The move comes as part of more stringent regulations on colleges that has also seen Anniesland and Stow, among others across the country, downgraded from highly trusted sponsor status to an A-rating, a decision that, unless overturned by next month, would see both unable to recruit international students.
Talks between the Home Office and Scotland's Colleges – the umbrella body representing principals within the FE sector – have been urged as politicians on all sides entered the fray with education secretary, Mike Russell, calling for action to halt a potential ban while leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson, was this morning preparing to sit down with student officers at Cardonald College.
Under strict new standards imposed by the UK Border Agency (UKBA), colleges throughout the UK must meet six mandatory requirements to remain a Highly Trusted Sponsor, a status that Cardonald, Anniesland and Stow all enjoyed prior to applications for renewal being submitted for 2012-13 and one that must be achieved to bring in lucrative funding from overseas students.
The Journal understands the decision by UKBA to strip Cardonald College of its sponsor status came after the institution was rebuked on three of the six requirements – visa refusal rates, enrolment rates, and course completion rates.
Senior management at the college are preparing to challenge all three criteria, The Journal has learned, on the basis UKBA's response has been disproportionate as a result of flawed figures and ignorance of small numbers of students enrolled, incremental changes within which can have a much wider impact on meeting new percentage-based guidelines.
However, the institution will have to wait six months before being allowed to submit another application for trusted sponsor status, UKBA has confirmed to The Journal, a delay that could cost Cardonald hundreds of thousands of pounds in terms of much-needed income from fees.
Last night students and staff within Scotland's FE sector called for an immediate solution amid fears over the future of those currently enrolled at affected colleges and the financial impact punitive action could have.
John Spencer, convener of Scotland's Colleges', said: "Objectively, it is easy to understand why these rules exist, but it is nonetheless the case that they end up discriminating against colleges in Scotland because it doesn't reflect their situation.
"There are over 2,500 international students in Scottish colleges. The loss of highly trusted status damages the reputation and prospects of the institution in attracting students to study with them. The changes being 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."
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."
Stefani Millar, president of Cardonald College Students' Association, told The Journal urgent clarification over steps now to be taken was needed to ensure international students were not left out in the dark.
"Although our international student population is small, they are a key part of our diverse student population and will understandably be upset by this news," she said.
"International students are vital to Cardonald College's current and future success, which is why the college must reach out to all of our international students, provide them with support, and work to ensure that they are still able to remain in their studies and graduate."
Robin Parker, president of the National Union of Students (NUS) Scotland, raised concerns the move would "unfairly punish" international students currently studying in Scotland. "For those students from outside of the EU in the middle of their courses, this will be a huge cloud hanging over their heads which could harm their studies," he added.
Stow College received a letter from UKBA last week confirming their application had been unsuccessful – more than five months on from submission to the Government agency, The Journal understands. The decision is not believed to be a result of an inspection, despite inspectors being sent into institutions to carry out checks in certain other cases.
Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for Anniesland added: "Anniesland College received a letter from the UKBA which advised of a change of grading to 'A Rated' status. The college is currently working with Scotland's Colleges and the UKBA in relation to the decision making process.
"The college's main concern is to ensure that current International students can complete their studies and achieve their qualifications with minimal disruption."
UKBA yesterday refused to disclose details of the outcomes of applications involving Anniesland and Stow until the institutions themselves went public.
However, a spokesman told The Journal: "Cardonald College has had its sponsor licence revoked as it failed to meet the standards required in order to attain Highly Trusted Status, which all Tier 4 sponsors are required to have by April 2012.
"Colleges licensed to bring in international students must ensure that the students are attending the course for which they are enrolled and that they are complying with the requirements of the immigration rules. Where the UK Border Agency finds evidence that sponsors are not fulfilling their duties we will suspend or remove their licence.”