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Why international students are taking the ‘back door’ route into England’s top universities

Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock

In January, England’s university leaders had their weekend breakfasts disturbed by an undercover investigation in the Sunday Times.

Using secret film of recruitment agents, the newspaper reported on a “back door” route which lets international students into Russell Group universities with “far lower grades” than students from the UK. Like the Ivy League in USA and Australia’s Group of Eight, these universities figure highly in university rankings and have stringent academic entry requirements.

The “back door” enables international students to enter a year-long foundation course with lower entry grades, then apply for progression onto an undergraduate degree.

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.

Read more: The public cost of private schools: rising fees and luxury facilities raise questions about charitable status

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.

The Conversation

Chris Millward is employed by the University of Birmingham, which is a member of the Russell Group. For four years prior to his appointment to the University of Birmingham in 2022, Chris was the Director for Fair Access and Participation on the executive and board of England's higher education regulator, the Office for Students. He has, therefore, been directly involved in the issues addressed by this article.


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