Report: Non-EU students in UK less likely to achieve top grades

The report has highlighted a grading disparity in UK universities, where non-EU international students are less likely to receive top degrees compared to their British peers. With international students paying significantly higher fees and forming a crucial financial base for universities, concerns about maintaining academic quality have surfaced.

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A report by the Financial Times highlights a distinct disparity in academic outcomes between non-EU international students and their UK counterparts at British universities. The data reveals that a significant 28 percent of non-EU international students attained either a lower-second or third-class degree in the 2021-2022 academic year, as opposed to 20 percent of domestic students.

This variance is pronounced within the esteemed Russell Group institutions, where the gap in achievement widens, indicating that non-EU students are twice as likely to receive lower grades.

The illustration below shows the share of students receiving a 2.2 or third-class degree, 2021-2022.

Source: FT analysis, HESA • Selected universities based on the providers with the largest gap between UK and non-EU student performance and more than 250 international students from outside the EU. First degree qualifiers only.

Disparity in academic achievement

This revelation is set against a backdrop of UK universities experiencing financial strains, leading to a growing reliance on the higher tuition fees paid by international students. The income from non-EU student fees, which has doubled over the past decade, now constitutes a fifth of university revenue. This situation raises concerns about the potential compromise of academic standards and the quality of student intake.

The discourse on this matter was recently amplified by Lord Jo Johnson, former universities minister, who highlighted the issue of a significant dropout rate among international students, stressing the need for a stringent vetting process to maintain the quality of admitted applicants.

The report points out that certain universities exhibit a more pronounced gap in academic performance between international and domestic students. Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Sussex, for instance, have three times the rate of lowest grades among non-EU students compared to UK students. Nottingham Trent University has an even higher discrepancy, with over half of its non-EU students receiving lower grades.

Strategies for narrowing the attainment gap

Universities in the UK attribute this gap in part to language barriers and the adjustment to different educational systems. The sector emphasizes the UK’s commitment to educational excellence and acknowledges the need for continued support and transition services for international students.

Moreover, EU students tend to perform on par or better than UK students, but they represent a minor segment of the international student population. The majority of non-EU students hail from Asian countries, such as China and India, where dropout rates have become a growing concern.

The report suggests that while the overall dropout rates between UK and international students are comparable, there is a need for more detailed data.

Nottingham Trent University views the grade discrepancy as an indication of its stance against grade inflation, which has been recognized in the academic community.

Both Sussex University and Queen’s University Belfast are undertaking measures to address the attainment gap, focusing on enhanced academic support and additional resources for international students.

The analysis indicates a multifaceted challenge within UK higher education, encompassing financial pressures, academic standards, and student support. The need for further research and strategic intervention is clear if the sector is to maintain its global reputation for quality education while ensuring equitable outcomes for all students.

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