Correction and Apology to the London School of Business and Finance ("LSBF")
In an article published on 2 June 2012, we incorrectly referred to LSBF (rather than LSBF Manchester ) in the context of allegations made by an international student, Mr Ekatah, who withdrew from a course for personal reasons. We regret that the Article may have been understood by readers to suggest that LSBF Manchester's handling of that student's case was based on terms and conditions that Mr Ekatah had not seen, and was possibly even illegal. We accept that neither is the case and we apologise to LSBF Manchester and to LSBF for any harm caused as a result.
International students say they are being cheated out of thousands of pounds by private British colleges with no avenue to reclaim the money, a Huffington Post investigation has uncovered.
Overseas students applying to study in Britain are finding themselves forced to pay tuition fees twice in order to secure a place at their chosen college, while others have discovered after arriving in the country they have been enrolled on the wrong course.
Education lawyer Salima Mawji, who has fought several colleges in court over such issues, says the system is "grossly unfair" towards students, and that colleges are to blame for not ensuring students are aware of the terms and conditions.
There are also fears that the issue could have further negative repercussions for Britain's international student sector, which brings around £5bn into the economy, amid fears the government's new net immigration policy could have a detrimental knock-on effect.
Labour MP Jon Ashworth has expressed his "deep concern" at the findings of the investigation.
"If we are putting more hurdles in the way of the students then that is going to be to the detriment of the wider UK economy," he said.
The Huffington Post UK spoke to a number of students who have lost thousands of pounds after they took to online message boards to share their horror stories.
Mawji, who is a partner at Match Solicitors firm, says she represents many students dealing with the problem.
"Students are being recruited abroad by UK colleges through international agents. The students are asked to pay fees in advance before they travel to the UK," she said.
"They then come over and discover either that the course doesn't actually match what they expect or they find that as soon as they arrive there is a further demand for payment which they were not aware of and which can sometimes be quite substantial.
"I had a case where my client came from India and he'd enrolled in a college here. Originally he was told he would have to pay £1,800 so he did, came over and then as soon as he finished the first part of the course the college demanded a further £1,800. He contacted the agent and asked why they hadn't told him and they simply replied 'Well you didn't ask me'.
"That's not an uncommon problem unfortunately."
But Mawji says her real concern is international students being provided with the wrong information by the agencies who are recruiting them in their home country.
"This information quite often doesn't stipulate the correct contractual rights or the correct fee structures - or even sometimes the correct courses."
Mawji warns the colleges are not ensuring the agencies they use are acting responsibly.
Onw student, Salvador Payumo from the Philippines, contacted the Huffington Post UK after the Impact International College in Reading refused to refund the £1,800 he paid as a deposit.
Consultancy agency Davao Link, whose offices are based in the Philippines, recommended the school but after his student visa was denied Payumo decided not to apply again.
Without Payumo's knowledge, the agency requested another Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (CAS) letter from the college so he would be able to reapply for a visa.
When Payumo tried to get his tuition fee refund, he was told by the college he had violated the terms and conditions by applying for another CAS but not applying for a visa. The college said in an email:
"We issued you a new CAS for a fresh visa application so a refund is not applicable in your case. There is no refund in cases of administrative error."
On the college's website, the terms and conditions state:
"There is absolutely NO REFUND whatever the exceptional circumstances if the student for whatever reason fails to apply for the visa or changes their mind about applying for a visa even if the College changes the course or course structure or if the UKBA introduces new rules that may affect your application."
Payumo told the college he did not request a new CAS and he was unaware the agency had done so.
"My trust in UK colleges right now is fully devastated after Impact International College denied me unjustly of my tuition fee refund. But I am not alone - there are others who have been denied a refund for the same reason."
The principal of the Reading college has since told HuffPost: "We shall look into this matter but we do need the name of the student and if you can give us that we shall reply to you ans [sic] we have never withheld a student fee in over 25 years of busiiness [sic] and unfortunatly [sic] the agency you talk about was deleted from our agency list due to malpractice."
Mawji is now calling for an independent body for students to go to.
"The British Accreditation Council should take a more responsible role in ensuring these colleges are not misleading students in this way. Within their structure they could certainly have some sort of appeal or complaint body these students could go to that could make a binding decision on the college and the student regarding refunding fees.
"Students don't know where to go to. It's grossly unfair to come from an international country and then have to get involved in the judicial system here. That's a pretty tall order and in any event, they're already paying a lot of money for their courses and then to have to meet legal fees on top of that as well.
"There is legal aid but through the recent legal services act it has been slashed to pieces. It is very difficult to get help in education matters. There is an immediate assumption that students who study internationally have got money."
Education experts, politicians and charities are now backing calls for an independent appeals body for international students.
MP Jon Ashworth has already told HuffPost UK he is willing to offer his support to such a body.
"I am deeply concerned at the signal the regime for international students sends out across the world. If it's now the case that because of this, students are getting refused and yet they've already paid fees, there has to be some sort of system in place for students to be able to reclaim those fees.
"The competition for international students is intense because countries such as Australia and the US know how important it is to their economies. But if we are putting more hurdles in the way of the students then that is going to be to the detriment of the wider UK economy."
David Kahtan, managing director of ForeignStudents.com has also backed having an organisation students can turn to: "Students should have a place to go to if they are unhappy with a decision, as genuine mistakes and mitigating circumstances may prevent the student from taking up their college place and a refund of fees would be appropriate.
"Such a body supervised by the BAC is a good idea, helping to safeguard the UK not only as a leading educational destination, but also upholding its reputation of 'fair play'."
Although the BAC does have a complaints procedure, it has no regulatory powers, and students can only come to the body for help if the college has been accredited by the BAC - which many aren't.
Gina Hobson, chief executive of the BAC, said the charity would be eager to see an independent regulating body.
"At present, there are no set government standards which refer specifically to private FE or HE providers. BAC would be keen to see a comprehensive scheme developed to safeguard students who attend private colleges of further and higher education in the UK.
"We have been working in tandem with bodies including the UK Council for International Student Affairs and the British Council to press relevant government departments to put such a system in place."
Have you been affected by any of the issues in this story? Tell us in the comments below.
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