The Sunday Times article saw undercover reporters pose as students’ parents and vie to get onto “secret” pathway programs. It said recruitment officials had indicated that exams were so easy that they were formalities.
It also claimed that some universities were allowing overseas students with poorer grades onto the pathway programs where British students would not be eligible.
Universities UK chief executive Vivienne Stern argued in a statement that the article was misguided, and “failed to distinguish the entry requirements for International Foundation years and full degrees”.
“International Foundation Years are designed to prepare students to apply for full degree programs. They do not guarantee entry to them. They are designed for students who come from different education systems where, in many cases, students might have completed 12 rather than 13 years of secondary education,” Stern explained.
Other stakeholders have also blasted the article, with one calling it “poorly-researched” and saying it implies the wrong opinions about pathway and foundation programs.
“There is no understanding of the role of International Foundation programs, which are aimed at students whose curriculum ends at the equivalent of the UK’s year 12. These students complete their Year 13 equivalent on a Foundation programme, as they are studying in a home country which does not provide this,” explained Sarah Shirley, executive director for the centre of International Education and Languages at King’s College London.
The Times article also implied, according to Shirley, that the programs are “sub-standard in some way”.
The University of Exeter, whose pathway program was targeted by undercover reporters, said the suggestion that international students being considered more on lower grades “was inaccurate”, also agreeing that the piece “confused” foundation pathways and degree entry.
“Foundation pathways have entirely separate admissions processes and entry requirements to degree entry,” a spokesperson told The PIE News. They added that Exeter provides support to help students from “all backgrounds” to succeed in their study.
“The long-standing partnership with INTO provides academic pathways for international students that are designed to develop academic skills of students whose home countries may provide 12 years of education, rather than 13 as in the UK, and may not be the equivalent to A-level standard.”
Marketing expert James Leach, who has previously worked for international student guidance platform BridgeU, also made the point that the article implies the courses are not common knowledge.
“I don’t think trying to convince people that organisations like Kaplan – one of the most established international educations in the world – and INTO are somehow running a bootleg university admission operation is going to work,” Leach said.
“The article seems to imply that these courses aren’t publicised, when a quick Google Search suggests they are heavily marketed by the organisations in question,” he added.
The CEO of Study Group, a pathway provider that’s well known across the sector, aggressively refuted the idea that pathways are “underhanded or offer unfair advantage to international students”.
“Students who apply to our programmes are admitted only after rigorous checks for academic suitability and compliance.
“Preparatory pathways have long proved to be effective means of providing a bridge to universities, supporting the transition from another language and academic system and developing students
so they are well able to thrive in their studies.
“The programmes themselves are subject to rigorous academic governance and are appropriately challenging for students,” argued Ian Crichton, in their statement to The PIE.
“This may not be the most desirable way to fund unis, but it is where we are now”
The article has garnered much reaction from organisations in the wider industry, too, especially for its framing. Multiple stakeholders said the tone of the article, colouring the pathways as a “back door entry”, would be lost on the vast majority of the sector – considering their widespread notoriety in international education circles.
“The article could have been much more impactful with the sector if it has stuck to focusing on [International Year 1] programs,” noted Mark Ovens, Studyportals‘ business unit director for international education.
International Year ones replace the first year of a Bachelor’s degree, rather than Foundation years, which are an add-on introductory year followed by the full degree.
“The blurred lines between foundation and international year one throughout is confusing. You’d have to assume this is either deliberate to attempt to make the piece more emotive to the general public, or poor journalism.”
On X, politics professor Rob Ford explained that the article also missed an important point regarding the cost international students bring in.
“If anyone imagines cutting overseas student intakes [would] free up spaces for UK students, they don’t understand university finances at all.
“Its quite simple really: universities lose money – lots of money – on British students… They lose money on research, because the [government] doesn’t fully fund overheads. Overseas students are how they balance the books. This may not be the most desirable way to fund unis, but it is where we are now.
“The article seems to imply that these courses aren’t publicised”
“Anyone wanting to change this has accept either 1, higher fees for UK students; 2, higher subsidy for UK students (& hence higher taxes for someone) or 3, fewer places for UK students,” Ford explained.
However, The Sunday Times editorial blamed the situation on government policy, stating that top universities should be allowed to raise fees in line with inflation “at the very least”.
“UK student opportunity is restricted by public funding, while universities are enhanced by the involvement and funding contribution of international students,” agreed Crichton.
The Russell Group, commenting on the issue, also made the point that domestic students have their own style of foundation courses, even if they are not permitted to take the pathway programs set up for international students.
“They are designed to support students from underrepresented groups to access higher education and bridge the gap between different educational backgrounds. Entry to main degree programs from these courses is not guaranteed [in both programs],” Tim Bradshaw, the group’s chief executive assured.
The article also makes a claim that non-EU students are performing “far worse” than UK students, which is not substantiated in the article.