UK universities accused of enabling ‘back door’ entry for international students with lower grades

Russell Group university representatives were caught on undercover footage appearing to suggest that international students with low exam results, equivalent to C-level GCSEs, could gain admission by paying their way into higher education.

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Top UK universities are allegedly using intermediaries to admit international students through “back door” routes.

Russell Group university representatives were caught on undercover footage appearing to suggest that international students with low exam results, equivalent to C-level GCSEs, could gain admission by paying their way into higher education.

In contrast, UK students applying for the same courses would need A or A* grades at A-level. The alleged motivation behind the universities’ interest in foreign students is their ability to charge higher tuition fees compared to domestic students.

Among the 24 universities in the Russell Group, 15 have been implicated in the scandal. The investigation by The Sunday Times focused on international foundation courses designed to assist foreign students in transitioning to degree programs.

The Sunday Times’ investigation involved conversations with recruiters representing several Russell Group universities, such as Exeter University and Manchester University, along with an agency representing Nottingham, York, and Durham.

 

Leeway for international students
On hidden cameras, a recruitment official representing four Russell Group institutions was recorded stating: “International students pay more money, and the universities will receive almost double, so they give leeway for international students.”

The foundation courses do not constitute the initial year of a university degree; rather, they serve as an additional year of education for students who may not meet academic or English language prerequisites.

Successfully completing the course, which recruiters claimed was almost a formality, can secure direct entry into a degree program, once again with tuition fees not subject to caps.

International students often pay significantly higher annual tuition fees compared to UK students. According to the Reddin survey of university tuition fees published by the Complete University Guide in 2021, foreign students could face fees of nearly £40,000 (approximately $50,700) per year.
The tuition fees for UK students are capped by the government at a maximum of £9,250 ($11,700) per year.

Recruiters representing Russell Group universities in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia were found offering places on international foundation courses to students with B and C grades at GCSE level, or even D and E grades at A-level, according to the investigation.

Uneven playing field

UK students applying for the same courses, subject to capped tuition fees, would require straight A or A* grades for direct entry into the first year.

One recruiter said: “Direct entry is a bit tricky in the UK unless you are an A student. It (a foundation course) is like a back door to being able to enter these universities.”

The intermediaries are said to receive up to a 20 percent commission from the fees paid by first-year students, accumulating into millions of pounds across the implicated institutions.

During one instance, undercover journalists engaged with representatives from the external agency INTO. Despite being employed by another firm, these individuals wore university-branded lanyards and utilized official email addresses.

Recruiters, in certain instances, clarified that a student should apply to the university through an external agency rather than utilizing the official admissions service UCAS. This approach would ensure that there would be no external record of their entry into the university through an international foundation course.

INTO, along with several universities employing recruiters to attract international students, asserted to the paper that they were dedicated to fair admissions and maintained high-quality standards for new learners.

Russell Group response
The Russell Group emphasized in a statement to the Sunday Times that international students play a crucial role in their student body, bringing diverse perspectives that enhance the learning environment.

They also highlighted that the revenue generated from international students is reinvested to support high-quality teaching and learning for the benefit of all students.

In another statement issued on Jan. 27, the Russell Group clarified that International Foundation Year programs at their universities are distinct from degree programs, with separate admissions processes and, importantly, different entry requirements. They pointed out that the article incorrectly conflated these aspects.

The Russell Group additionally stated that many international education systems do not align with the UK system, leading to variations in qualifications, which may contribute to diverse entry criteria for students.

Financial deficits at UK universities

Many UK universities are at risk of financial deficits due to a sharp decline in international students, partly attributed to what is perceived as hostile rhetoric from Rishi Sunak’s government, warns the head of the sector’s main lobby group.

Vivienne Stern, chief executive of Universities UK, representing over 140 universities, has expressed concern about a potential “serious overcorrection” in the sector attributed to immigration policies that are perceived to discourage international students from choosing Britain for their studies.

Stern said: “If they want to cool things down, that’s one thing, but it seems to me that through a combination of rhetoric, which is off-putting, and policy changes …[they have] really turned a whole bunch of people off that would otherwise have come to the UK.”

The UUK CEO’s appeal coincided with revelations that certain prestigious universities, such as York, a member of the Russell Group, were compelled to lower entry requirements to sustain the enrollment of international students.

Nathan Yasis

Nathan Yasis

Nathan studied information technology and secondary education in college. He dabbled in and taught creative writing and research to high school students for three years before settling in as a digital journalist.

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Nathan Yasis

Nathan Yasis

Nathan studied information technology and secondary education in college. He dabbled in and taught creative writing and research to high school students for three years before settling in as a digital journalist.

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