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UK universities respond to exposé on international students


Institutions address practices criticised in Sunday Times as “back door” route for wealthy foreign applicants

Universities have responded to a front-page investigation by the Sunday Times into international foundation degrees that accused them of squeezing out domestic students in favour of international students who pay more to study in the UK.

The detailed report claims that while the Russell Group of research-intensive universities require UK students to have A-grade qualifications to obtain places on undergraduate courses, a “back-door route” of a foundation year allows international students a place on the same courses but with lesser qualifications.

The report specifically talks about foundation courses run by Kaplan and Study Group, some of which are based on UK campuses, and which the report describes as “so lucrative that top universities are paying tens of millions of pounds a year to agents and private companies to hunt out wealthy students”. 

According to the newspaper, 15 Russell Group universities offer such courses, but many non-Russell Group institutions also have similar arrangements.

“Universities are doing this for one reason: money,” the report said. “Foreign students pay up to £38,000 a year in tuition fees, whereas those for UK students have been capped at £9,250 since 2017. Our report will cause anger and frustration among British students and parents.”

Yesterday, the Department for Education said it was taking an interest—and discussions between ministers and university groups are said to have taken place, also yesterday.

But chief executive of vice-chancellors’ body Universities UK, Vivienne Stern, said “the Sunday Times story fails to distinguish between entry requirements for international foundation years and full degrees”.

Entry not guaranteed

“International foundation years are designed to prepare students to apply for full degree programmes,” she explained. “They do not guarantee entry to them. 

“They are designed for students who come from different education systems where, in many cases, students might have completed 12 rather than 13 years of [school] education.

“We entirely agree that the entry requirements for international and domestic students to full degree programmes should be equivalent. It is essential that the integrity of entry routes be protected. 

“However, it must also be understood that entry routes for international students will reflect the diverse countries and education backgrounds that these students come from, and that some will need bridging courses to enable them to progress to UK degrees.

“We stand ready to work with government to uphold trust and confidence in the UK higher education system. 

“Where weaknesses are exposed, for instance, in relation to the use of agents, we will work with government to address them. Indeed, Universities UK and the British Council recently published an Agent Quality Framework as a step towards this.”

Revenue reinvested

The Russell Group published a statement saying: “Foundation-year programmes have long proved to be effective pathways to university for both international and UK students.

“Most of our members also run foundation courses specifically for UK students, with similar entry requirements, designed to support students from underrepresented groups to access higher education and bridge the gap between different educational backgrounds. Entry to main degree programmes from these courses is not guaranteed.

“The latest Ucas [admissions body] data shows domestic student numbers at Russell Group universities are rising faster than international student numbers. 

“International students are an important part of our student body, bringing diverse perspectives that enrich the learning environment. Revenue from international students is reinvested into high-quality teaching and learning to benefit all students.”

This is an excerpt from today’s 8am Playbook, available to subscribers.