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Have we reached peak IFP?

International Foundation Programmes have become a key part of any university international recruitment strategy and significant business for a range of private education companies who have partnered with universities to recruit students and prepare them for degree study.

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"As nations establish stronger higher education systems... then the desire to travel for longer periods of study overseas may decline"

While running pre-undergraduate and pre-postgraduate programs for a UK university consortium over two decades ago in China, we asked the question then of whether we’d reached the peak. That was even before the arrival of private providers on the scene.

As student behaviours change, driven by a range of factors including economic circumstances, their local and UK government policy, world crises etc, we need to review this question.

Covid-19 is of course a catalyst, along with Brexit, and the reverberations are still being felt regionally and globally. For example, the effects of reduced mobility due to Brexit and then Covid-19, followed by prolonged lock downs in countries like China, saw far fewer students coming to the UK to study. This has been felt by some institutions more than others.

Some world regions are focusing on becoming study destinations rather than sending countries and students are reviewing their choice of study destination and opting for something closer to home, be that in Singapore, Malaysia or China.

This is on top of economic pressures with a resultant growing desire for in-country transnational offerings that significantly reduce the environmental impact of travel.

In some regions of the world, there has been an increase of interest in gaining international qualifications, especially those with emerging middle classes. However, longer term, as nations establish stronger higher education systems themselves with sufficient places for the national population, then the desire to travel for longer periods of study overseas may decline.

So where does that leave us?

For the UK context, we can thank the global reputation of UK higher education for maintaining the desire of students to study in the UK. But we may need to re-evaluate why universities are looking for students and why those students are undertaking the IFP.

In some contexts, these programs offer the opportunity for students to upgrade and demonstrate improved performance. For other institutions, they offer tailored preparation for degree study to students who are academic high achievers at home but come from a country which offers 12 years of schooling as opposed to the 13 years offered in England and so require the additional year.

IFPs are designed to teach the specific additional knowledge needed for future studies, but also the academic study skills needed to succeed at degree level including how to research and write an academic essay, take part in seminars etc. This preparation sets IFP graduates apart from other international and home students.

For many universities now across the sector, diversification is a key strategic aim. Universities value the benefits of diversity in the classroom, including cultural and national diversity, as well as an an international perspective on research projects. There is recognition that the workplace is now largely global and in order to equip our graduates, they need to learn in a global context. We also recognise that the world’s wicked problems can’t be solved by one nation or group of researchers working in isolation: collaboration is the key.

“This is about opening up opportunity and ensuring a more global experience for all those on campus”

As a result, IFPs offer the opportunity to prepare a range of students from across the globe for study at a UK university; this is about opening up opportunity and ensuring a more global experience for all those on campus. Across the sector, current trends see IFP enrolments rebounding after the effects of the pandemic. There are innovations in course offerings, especially for universities with centres run by a private provider, for example in international year one programs, which are helping to keep numbers buoyant. Offshore programs are available and offer cost savings but miss out on the opportunity to gain hands on experience of the library and to gain familiarity with campus and its facilities.

It’s a complex picture and one which needs to be regularly reviewed but currently, indications are that students are still motivated to study overseas and that the peak for IFPs has not yet been reached.

About the author: Professor Nina-Anne Lawrence is Head of Department and Director of Warwick Foundation Studies (WFS), University of Warwick.  Nina-Anne is a strategic thinker with global experience gained from the UK, China, Germany and the Republic of Ireland. She has expertise in balancing academic quality and superior student experience with the strategic goals and objectives of an organisation gained through roles including Director of Academic Affairs, Director of International Affairs, Head of International Business Development, Academic Director and CEO. Nina-Anne is also the Chair of the University Pathway Alliance and on the editorial board for the InForm Journal. 


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