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International pathways under fire, UK sector responds

UK sector bodies and stakeholders are once again responding to claims made by mainstream media that domestic students are being "squeezed out" of universities by international students.
March 18 2024
4 Min Read

UK sector bodies and stakeholders are once again responding to claims made by mainstream media that domestic students are being “squeezed out” of universities by international students, as one publication hit out at international pathway programs for the second time this year.

“International students do not reduce the number of places available to home students,” Vivienne Stern MBE, chief executive of Universities UK, responded clearly to the latest article from the Sunday Times which hit out at education agents and pathway providers.

It claimed they give international students “a back door” to UK universities and that domestic students are being unfairly pushed out of the system.

A whistleblower – an ex-employee of Study Group, who the article said previously held a senior position – used the platform to discuss how young people in the UK are being disadvantaged by universities’ desire to “rake in cash” from overseas students paying higher tuition fees, the article laid out.

“Profit motive is overriding the drive for quality,” said the former employee, identified only by pseudonym.

“The nature of the business is to bring in the overseas students, pile them high, and as long as they have the money, they will invariably be accommodated in some way,” he continued.

The Sunday Times made fresh digs at the the entry qualifications for international pathway programs – this time those established by Study Group specifically – claiming that they are set very low in order to make them attractive to as many international students as possible.

The article claims to have obtained confidential documents in which Study Group allegedly set out different types of international students to recruit, describing personas such as the “socialite” – a student who is “less cost-conscious” and will have achieved only “medium” grades and the “immigrant”, in this case a term used to describe someone looking to “relocate out of India”, with “medium/low” grades, the Sunday Times reported.

The publication said that the former employee’s claims were backed by leaked minutes of meetings, marketing presentations and internal presentations.

In a statement following the news article, Study Group CEO Ian Crichton said it “absolutely refutes defamatory statements” about its “long-standing work to recruit and teach international students in preparation for university level study”.

Study Group will be formally complaining to the Independent Press Standards Organisation regarding the article, and said the claims that it accepts students on financial grounds alone are “untrue” and were published without offering Study Group the opportunity to respond.

Crichton said that the company explained to the Sunday Times, prior to publication of the article, that “the decision to admit well-prepared students to degree level study is always made by universities themselves”.

He highlighted Study Group’s “strict educational standards” across application and admission processes to its International Study Centres, as well as how teaching is carefully agreed with university partners.

The article also described how pathway providers “make their millions” – receiving about 15% of the first-year tuition fees for a student that progresses to university through their pathways, and also tuition fees they charge for the courses.

“As a result, the company bosses became very rich,” read the article, which went on to note that in 2019, a majority stake of the Study Group was sold to a Paris-based investment company in a deal that valued Study Group at a reported £500 million.

“Accounts show the firm made £119 million in British revenue in 2022 and the highest-earning director was paid £500,000, more than the vast majority of university vice-chancellors,” the article continued.

In turn, for the second time in only a few months, stakeholders are finding themselves defending international pathway programs, and the place of international students in the UK’s higher education system.

“Although the number of international students in our universities has risen, the number of places for home students has also increased,” said Stern.

Although the number of international students in our universities has risen, the number of places for home students has also increased

“In fact, since universities in all parts of the UK lose money teaching home students, they need other sources of income to ensure that they can continue to increase home places.”

Stern argued that international pathways are a “small but important part of this picture”.

“They support student success by helping prepare students coming into our universities from different education systems.”

A spokesperson from the Russell Group also responded to the claims set out in the article.

“Our universities ensure all students – whatever their pathway to university – are at an appropriate standard to study, both on entry and throughout their course.”

They highlighted that for each degree program, Russell Group universities have minimum entry requirements that are equivalent for all students, whether they are from the UK or abroad.

“There are no shortcuts to admission and completing an International Foundation program does not guarantee entry onto a degree course,” the statement read.

“They are not a guarantee of entry into a full degree. International students on pathway courses have to achieve the academic standards required to pass the course, and not all students manage this,” Stern continued, highlighting that even after one year of intensive study, 20–25% of students do not progress from the pathway program onto a full undergraduate program at the partner university.

Meanwhile, the progression rate of international students from a foundation year program to a degree course at those Russell Group universities who run these programs is typically around 70%.

Earlier in the year, the Sunday Times used an undercover reporter posing as students’ parents and vie to get onto “secret” pathway programs resulted in UUK commissioning an external review by the QAA into International Foundation Programs and International Year One Programs, including their entry requirements.

“This work is underway and will report in the coming months,” said Stern, highlighting the importance of maintaining public confidence that the admissions system is fair and transparent.

It’s a move supported by the Russell Group too, as they welcome greater transparency of admissions processes.

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