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Why overseas students taking ‘back door’ route into Britain’s top universities

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An undercover study published in the Sunday Times in January upset the weekend brunches of England’s academic executives.

The newspaper reported on a “back door” technique that allows international students to enter Russell Group universities with “far lower grades” than students from the UK, using covert footage of recruitment agents. Similar to the USA’s Ivy League and Australia’s Group of Eight, these universities are highly regarded in rankings and have competitive admissions.

Through the “back door,” international students can seek for advancement onto an undergraduate degree after enrolling in a year-long foundation course with lower entry grades.

The government has responded by commissioning its own investigation. Robert Halfon, minister for higher education, has said he wants to make sure there is a “level playing field” for domestic students.

England’s universities now gain most of their income through tuition fees rather than government grant, and they can charge much higher fees to international students. This is leading to concerns that they are favouring international students through the foundation year route. There has never, though, been a “level playing field” for university entry due to the influence of family background on school results.

Foundation years

The Sunday Times story focused on bridging programmes, which are usually called foundation years in England. These are year-long courses taken after school but before starting an undergraduate degree. They help students improve their academic standing and prepare them for university.

There are foundation years run by independent companies with partnerships and recognition from universities. Russell Group and other English universities also run foundation years themselves, often linked to specific subjects such as medicine and physical sciences. Foundation years are becoming increasingly popular, with the number of entrants increasing from 8,000 to around 70,000 during the last decade.
These courses were initially intended to help two groups of students enter undergraduate degrees. First, English students from less-advantaged backgrounds. These students gain lower grades overall and are more likely to have vocational qualifications designed for progression into work, rather than academic studies.

And second, international students from educational systems with school-leaving qualifications that are not comparable to those in the UK.

For many years, different governments in England have encouraged recruitment of both groups of students. This has included setting targets for the recruitment of under-represented groups and international students, and making changes to higher education and immigration regulations.

By helping less-advantaged students enter university, foundation years increase opportunities and improve the supply of highly skilled graduates. Their attraction of international students also generates tuition fee income for universities and creates connections for trade and diplomacy. These benefits are now being set against perceptions of unfairness, which relate to the use of foundation years by students who have not met the required grades.

Student recruitment

During the last decade, the most selective universities in England have increased their recruitment of domestic students from all backgrounds as well as international students. But this is becoming increasingly difficult due to the level of tuition fees for domestic undergraduates.

The government has increased the maximum fee for domestic students only once in ten years, from £9,000 to £9,250 per year in 2017. In real terms, the fee for each student has reduced by around one quarter in this time.

In contrast, there is no cap on international student fees. These can be over £30,000 per year. There are, therefore, much stronger financial incentives to increase numbers of international rather than domestic students.

The “back door” identified by the Sunday Times involves not only foundation year provision for students with qualifications from other countries, but also international students who have gained UK qualifications through independent schools. These students achieve grades below the published entry requirements, then take a foundation year to meet the standard. Universities are recruiting more students through this route because they rely on them to fund domestic student places.

Is this unfair? Many UK families pay for private schooling and tutoring, and pay for students to re-sit examinations to meet selective university entry requirements. Those from private schools are over twice as likely to enter Russell Group universities as students from the state sector.

And this route leads to influence. Two-thirds of the current UK cabinet attended fee-paying private schools, compared with 7% of the wider population. Research conducted in 2019 found that 87% of cabinet members were Russell Group alumni.

Notwithstanding this, the perception of unfairness highlighted by the report may be influential. The government wants universities to balance their pursuit of private income from international students with the interests of its own population.

Yet the government now funds only £1,600 of the average £10,200 that English universities receive for each domestic student. This 15% contribution cannot adequately represent the level of public interest in the education of the nation’s young people. A new settlement must, then, be a priority for whichever government is in power by the end of 2024.

Chris Millward, Professor of Practice in Education Policy, University of Birmingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Dulal Ahmed Chowdhury is the Editor of The Daily Dazzling Dawn. Previously, he has been serving in important positions in all the famous national dailies of the Bangladesh since the nineties. He has played a commendable role in journalism by participating in various events at the national and international levels. United Nations Conference, World Climate Conference, SAARC Summit are notable among them.

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