Britain’s theological colleges are coming under pressure following a government decision that sees many forced to choose between taking a massive financial hit and turning away foreign students.
The U.K. Borders Agency announced new rules for the oversight of colleges designed to crack down on those used as a front for immigration scams.
But since the summer, if Bible colleges want to admit students from outside the European Union, they will have to be inspected by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) at a cost of up to $47,000 (approximately 30,000 British pounds).
The previous system provided for inspection through an education agency for around $7,800 (about 5,000 British pounds) or, in the case of a denominational college, the ecumenical Quality In Formation panel.
Not all colleges are affected; some are affiliated with a university and are covered by their parent institution. Of Baptist colleges, Regent’s Park and Cardiff are in this category.
But the financial burden has led to some colleges, such as the Anglican Oak Hill College, making the decision not to accept students from outside the EU.
Bristol Baptist College’s manager, Fran Brealey, is applying for the new status to allow it to take “Tier 4” students, but said it was a costly decision.
“We may not recoup the money, but it’s part of our mission to be outward-looking,” Brealey said. “Part of our ministry is the training and formation of leaders for the world church, not just for the U.K.”
“We have applied in hope that the government will at least cut these fees,” she said. “But next time we may decide that we can’t afford it. It’s a real shame for the colleges.”
The principal of London Theological Seminary, Robert Strivens, wrote an open letter to Damian Green, minister of state for immigration, in which he spoke of the “grave threat” to smaller colleges.
The new requirements were, he said, “disproportionate, unnecessary and unfair to legitimate private institutions” like London Theological Seminary and would represent around 7 percent of its total budget.
Andy Doel, vice principal and bursar of Redcliffe College, also criticized the move.
“I’m sure there is an argument to justify the latest tranche of rulings from the U.K. Borders Agency but in my opinion, it has been introduced too widely, too soon,” Doel said, and “failed to recognize that most colleges in the Christian sector are validated by universities who are already responsible for such quality assurance.”
He warned that the number of non-EU students would be reduced, and that fewer colleges would be able to admit them.
“Redcliffe has applied for EO as we recognize the need to continue to provide the genuine intercultural learning experience that exists at the moment. A number of other colleges are not able to apply because it is simply too expensive when a small number of international students are involved.
“It is important that Damian Green is made aware of the danger – a simple regulatory change may well change the impact of U.K. Christian colleges forever.”
Rev. Paul Goodliff, head of the Union’s ministry department, also criticized the change.
“While a QAA inspection is appropriate for a large institution like a university, the small theological colleges and Bible colleges caught up in the government’s change of policy will find that this is prohibitively expensive for the tiny number of Tier 4 students likely to seek visas.
“Perhaps the appearance will be given that the private college sector is an easy target for the reduction in the numbers of overseas students required if the U.K. Border Agency is to reduce immigration figures overall. Perhaps it also demonstrates the general level of ignorance about the churches and their life in the nation, which is apparent in so many areas of public life, not least in Whitehall.”
However, a U.K. Border Agency spokesperson said the student visa system has been abused for too long.
“To eliminate abuse of the student visa route into the U.K., we are tightening arrangements for the inspection of privately funded colleges before they are allowed to sponsor international students. These more rigorous inspections will support our efforts to ensure only high-quality religious colleges can sponsor students to come here,” the spokesperson said.
“Students should come to the U.K. to study, not to work or settle. We want legitimate students only, to study at legitimate colleges and universities.”
Members of Parliament, including Green, were scheduled to meet college representatives on Oct. 10 at the London School of Theology to discuss the issue.