He said domestic student places were capped by the government and being used to capacity, while non-EU recruitment – which is not capped – was viewed in an entirely separate admissions category.
However, he warned universities not to sacrifice standards in the hunt for foreign students and the fees they pay – something universities roundly reject they do.
His comments follow an undercover investigation into a Beijing education agency, published in Tuesday’s Daily Telegraph. In it, an undercover reporter posing as a student is offered places at a number of leading UK universities, despite having just three C grades at A-level.
The student is offered a place at Cardiff University and the University of Sussex where applicants would normally need AAB. The agent also says three Bs would win the student a place at a number of other highly ranked Russell Group universities, which the Telegraph said were oversubscribed to by domicile students.
The agency, Golden Arrows Consulting, is the official agent for more than 20 British universities recruiting in China.
Universities moved swiftly to deny the claims. Sussex said it never made C, C, C offers, while Cardiff University said it was “unlikely”. Both said entry thresholds were sometimes lowered for students, for instance during the clearing period, but never by more than one or two grades.
Universities UK meanwhile refuted the article’s central contention – that overseas students were “queue jumping” and taking domestic places.
Universities UK said universities would gain little by massaging entry criteria
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive, said: “International students do not, and cannot, displace home student places. UK student places are capped by government. Recruitment of international students operates entirely outside these domestic limits.”
She confirmed that universities’ entry requirements could be relaxed in certain circumstances for both home and overseas students. However, she said universities would gain little by massaging entry criteria, other than compromising their reputation and causing significant additional work in terms of supporting “poorly performing students” .
In an article written for Telegraph on Wednesday, Willetts backed the claims. “Whatever practices have occurred at Golden Arrow or elsewhere, there should not be any effect on the recruitment of our own students. International students do not displace British students. They fund themselves separately, paying their full costs.”
He also denied overseas students were primarily a source of overseas revenue to universities – a symbolic repudiation of a separate analysis piece in the Telegraph claiming the opposite.
Willetts said claims about lower entry standards were a “salutary” reminder to universities
However, he said claims about lower entry standards were a “salutary” reminder to universities. “If our world-class institutions admit people who cannot cope or who slow down their fellow students, their league table position will slip. That is in no one’s interests,” he said.
The ricochet of responses to the story across mainstream media came in another back-and-forth week for the issue of student immigration in the UK. On Monday, Home Office minister Damian Green – thought broadly to oppose reassessment of government restrictions on student visas – moved to reassure international students that they were still welcome in the UK.