The Herald revealed yesterday that at least six publicly funded colleges were stripped of their highly trusted sponsor status following investigations by the UK Border Agency (UKBA). The decision is damaging because, from next month, only colleges with highly trusted status can recruit overseas students – an increasingly lucrative market.
Education Secretary Michael Russell said the Government would move quickly to set up a meeting between Scottish colleges and the UKBA.
He added: "Immigration and visas are the responsibility of the UK Government and I am concerned the tightening up arrangements for colleges will affect their international competitiveness and their contribution to the wider economy.
"This Government will move quickly to set up a meeting with the colleges and the UKBA to try and resolve the situation and stop our colleges being damaged. I want to make sure our colleges and universities are able to compete on the world stage and continue to attract students from overseas."
Scotland's Colleges, which represents college principals, welcomed the Scottish Government intervention.
John Spencer, the organisation's convener, said: "International work is greatly important to Scottish colleges and the threat to this work doesn't just impact on a college's reputation and competitiveness, but on that of Scotland as a destination for students worldwide.
"It is easy to understand why these rules exist, but it is nonetheless the case that they end up discriminating against colleges in Scotland."
Robin Parker, president of NUS Scotland, which represents students, said: "International students bring huge educational, cultural and economic benefit to Scotland, and are a key reason why we are a worldwide education leader.
"UKBA needs to recognise the unique role that colleges play in Scotland in helping international students progress into higher education."
The row developed after 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.
It is understood some demotions came after inspectors found attendance records were not being properly kept.
Some colleges were downgraded because more than 15% of overseas students had left before the end of their course – a contravention of UKBA rules.
The recruitment of overseas students is a lucrative market for further education colleges, with some 2500 students currently enrolled in Scotland.
Estimates suggest these students bring in £15 million a year in fees, with a value to the wider economy of £30m.
The colleges involved include Anniesland, Stow and Cardonald in Glasgow and Motherwell in North Lanarkshire.