TRUSTED, Distrust and Antitrust: UK Education plays with “TRUST”

The difference between TRUST and DISTRUST is very thin and almost like being two sides of the same coin.  I am these days asked for my comments on the various TRUSTED SCHEMES and for the benefit of the journos who ask for my viewpoints and also for my industry colleagues who speculate on the reasons for GR not being a TSA, I provide the answers here…

From today, 6th April 2010, UKBA has initiated the HIGHLY TRUSTED SPONSOR SCHEME under which institutions who hold the license will be able to recruit students internationally and the previous trackrecord and compliance rate will be taken into account for the licenses to be granted. Sounds good, doesn’t it?

Certainly, it does sound “ideal”. The fact is that at this date only the public providers are accorded this status and the challenge for this scheme lies in how the private providers will be treated. This is where I would like to hold on to my claps and wait on. UK is known to have had A-list and also even last year when it did talk about the A-list, there were those doubted the background of many private providers included in the list. However, UKBA had different views. Today, under the Trusted Sponsors, the test will be as to how closely the compliance and the licenses are managed. I have my doubt and to me the whole thing looks like the same wine in a new bottle.

The challenges will also be the private colleges that offer degrees of public providers and also private colleges that package their foundation or diploma with degree institutions. Who issues the CAS and what if the CAS is issued by a public provider but the program is delivered by the private college, what happens?

Anyway, benefit of doubt to the UKBA. Will wait for the year to unfold.

Many ifs and buts are to be answered and take a look at the link from THES that indicates possibility of private colleges even going to court over the scheme. Interesting and worrisome.

You wrote on the need for UKBA treating students as a customer. This was a few months ago. Has your opinion changed?

My point was in relation to the mess in 2009 when students for no fault of theirs and solely due to the technicalities were being refused visas and losing time and career options. The newly introduced system then required a visa letter from the institution and often for small “silly” mistakes in that document (which the student couldn’t obviously check), the visas were refused. The students lost the visa fee too. This could have been checked at the time of taking the visa applications or even by a “reasonable” letter asking the student to get the document corrected within a “reasonable” timeframe. The visas were also refused in some cases if the bank logo was not in the right position (as per the definition of UKBA) on the financials even when genuine. I truly believe that the student is a customer. He pays a fee for a service and in 2009 there were numerous instances when the service was clearly below par.

Its early to say whether the situation has changed. Now we have a replacement for the Visa letter by CAS. This should cut on the errors with the visa letters. However, this is the only real change. We should ask for some improvement in the public relations on the part of UKBA. Refusing visas for technicalities such as asking for the bank logo on a particular place on the financials is just too-much. If the document is fraudulent, report the student to police or anyone else BUT if the document is genuine, the student cannot get a bank to do its own business to suit UKBA regulations drafted in another country. What matters is whether the student has money and whether he is genuine. Nothing else.

The benefit of doubt should always be to the student who is a customer anyway. The UK Student visa fees has gone up significantly from today and if the student has to keep re-lodging visas then are we not simply exploiting his circumstances. He needs the visa and so will not complain.

You have become very bitter in your comments about the TRUSTED PARTNER scheme of UKBA. Your company was the first agency in Eastern India invited BUT what happened?

Precisely. Global Reach is more experienced than most agencies in India and is in its 19th year. We have had an impeccable record not just by way of doing more student numbers to UK from Eastern India than any other agency headquartered in the region but also by the fact that we have near-perfect visa success rate and zero fraud rates. This is a reflection on the market in East India but also on the fact that Global Reach is very choosy about whom we work with and how we lodge visas which always followed our self-regimented verification process. This was the reason why it was invited to become a TRUSTED PARTNER and it also proved its integrity by successfully clearing Integrity verification by Integra (world check) twice.

However, in 2009, visa processing for Eastern India was moved to Delhi from Kolkata and somehow the entry clearance officers in Delhi did not know our background. At this time, a decision was also taken for visas from Kathmandu (Nepal) to be processed by the Entry Clearance post at Delhi. We (and I am aware that another Indian company operating in Nepal) assumed that the TP status that was linked to the entry clearance post would apply to the visas from Nepal too. However, not taking a chance, we wrote to UKBA in Delhi asking if it is right for our adverts in Nepal (by our division there) to carry the message that we are TP of British Deputy High Commission “in India”. There was no reply for a month to the letter leading to an assumption on our part that since the visas were being processed in India, this was fine and our advert in Nepal carried that caption.

Precisely this advert in Nepal resulted in GR being dropped from the Trusted Partner Scheme. No notice or suspension, though the TP agreement indicated that as a precursor to the termination from the scheme.

I was aghast, as we had no intention to violate any code of conduct. Nepal is not our main market and in anycase for some of the agencies that operated across borders, it was not possible for us to have separate website and separate brochures for each of the country to avoid the caption to be exclusively used in India only. In anycase, the caption mentioned that we were TP “in India” (hence indicating not “in Nepal”). We had even modified our schedule of charges to suit the UKBA scheme and dropped the security deposit that we charged students. I wrote back and explained to the Entry Clearance Officer who co-ordinated with us. She did understand the full context after several exchanges including my bringing of the fact that we had written to the UKBA for a clarification prior to advert appearing in Nepal. She summarized the development as an “honest mistake”. However, reconsideration was not possible since the Trusted Partner Scheme was being withdrawn at that time, anyway.

Hence the TRUSTED became DISTRUSTED even with near-perfect visa rate and zero fraud and even when it was an “honest mistake”. No benefit of doubt was given to the trusted agent. I can vouch that if the entry clearance function were by the UKBA Kolkata post, this would never have happened as we are reputed for our ethical track record.

You say that TP scheme was withdrawn and hence there was no reconsideration to the “honest mistake” BUT UKBA did initiate TRUSTED STUDENT AGENT scheme…

Yes days after the TP scheme was withdrawn, the TSA was introduced and it may appear that it was part of the changeover. Clearly TSA did not include us as we had been dropped from the TP scheme and the decision on the TSA list was already taken by the time we managed to detail the circumstances and by when the reason for advert in Nepal were explained.

Leaving aside a few who are experienced, most other chosen TSA are newer agents with hardly any track-record. I am sorry to say this, but many would fail most of the Trusted tests. Within days of the announcement of the TSA list, one such member even sent out an SMS campaign in an unethical manner telling students to come to that agency to short-cut the visa process. Another TSA has recently sent out mailers to hundreds of small agents to become sub-agent to take benefit of the TSA. UK authorities are aware of all this but this time the eagerness to act is not so visible. Maybe, I was more distrusted and my act was a bigger threat.

Benefit of doubt should have been given to older and more reputed agencies and feedback from the market should have been sought from their own divisions such as British Council.

TRUSTED turned DISTRUSTED, but does that affect your students or your institutions?

NO. The TSA has become only a marketing tool. Quality agents still have the support of their institutions and the visas are still granted. My company continued with the near perfect visa rate and zero fraudulent track-record across India even thereafter and continues to be the market leader in the East. Global Reach also boasts of over about 25 British Council Certified Counsellors and many of them have cleared the test with “distinction”. This matters more to us and to our students.

I sincerely value the relationship that we have with the British Council and would have certainly felt a little rewarded if the UKBA had only reconsidered its decision. More as satisfaction to our ego and to ensure an untainted track record, that rightly reflects us. Our conscience is clear and that is what matters at the end.

Last year you spoke out against the proposed UKBA policies at an official conclave of the British Council where you were invited as a speaker. Do you think that it bothered UKBA?

I donot think so. I don’t hope so too. I was invited by the British Council at the conclave and spoke on behalf of education agents. I only pointed out that the proposed changes that required funds to be shown for 28 days and where there is no interview would lead to several problems where third party “organized” sponsorships will become the tool for abuse. I also predicted that the policy would have to be reviewed. Today after a year of that, have we not seen that as a premonition of the things to come? The abuse happened and the system was reviewed.

My understanding is that the purpose of the conclave was to take feedback and that is what I offered. Hence there is no question of UKBA taking offence. Is there.

But you were absent at the conclave this year?

Only because one representative per organization was allowed and Mr Victor Rao, Global Reach GM represented the company.  I am told that he did well in raising several concerns and comments. We continue to hold the mirror to all our partners. If they get the message without shooting the messenger, it will serve the purpose.

TRUST, DISTRUST…What’s the solution?

The solution to the TSA experiment lies in “antitrust”…

antitrust |ˌantēˈtrəst; ˌantī-|

adjective [ attrib. ]

of or relating to legislation preventing or controlling  monopolies, with the intention of promoting competition in business.

This is only possible if the system of TSA is completely abolished. In the new system there is just no need too.

“A partner too far and a stranger too near

should not be TRUSTED.”

– Anonymous

The above was my way of letting out my steam. This is a blog and should be treated as such only. However, I take full ownership of the comments made in this particular blog. UKBA has been receptive to constructive criticism and this should also be taken as one such feedback. We do need a fair treatment.

6 Comments

  1. Ravi,
    This blog really asks some interesting questions. We were given to understand that in the UK system, agents played a role of a stakeholder in the growth of student numbers.

    Is it too much to ask for some transparency from the UKBA on their new TSA scheme?

    I am sure great research and thoughtfulness and objectivity has gone into the process of choosing these TSA for India. All we are asking for this information to be made public .

    The Integra Check was a excellent filter , and we all remember how some agents with huge numbers came a cropper once this check was done. Was the Integra done on the new TSA

    I am sure UKBA has a compelling reason for handing out this advantage to a ‘select’few..lets hope at least they tell us why?? As stakeholders we definately have a right to ask for this..

    Like

    1. I am sure that like all processes that UKBA is reviewing, they will review the TSA too. If they can put out transparent criteria then it will be of use to all: 1)Volume (what numbers), 2)Success rate (what percentage), 3)Third Party Integrity check (they already have) and 4)Norms related to subagency / subcontracting or franchising.

      Another interesting development of the day: http://ibnlive.in.com/news/uks-new-visa-rule-work-but-cant-settle/112759-2.html?from=tn

      Like

  2. Hi Ravi,

    Your blog reminds me of Victor’s query at the UKBA conclave on the 19th March,2010 – “If there are no caps on the Highly trusted or trusted partners in the U.K, then why does UKBA have caps for the Trusted student agents in India ?”

    Like

    1. Nobody knows as to what is required to become a TSA. With near perfect visa success rate and zero fraud and the highest volume in my region, I remain foxed. How can Trust be build or hoped for without transparency.

      Like

  3. UK Universities are very commercial, UKBA does not have a transparent criteria. UK Education says it’s grown by 50% with Indian students in the past 6 months. But again we see many students actually returning back from UK as conditions are not favorable. Looks like this growth for growth’s sake is the ideology of the cancer cell.

    Like

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