Fifteen of UK’s top universities accused of offering ‘back door’ routes to foreign students with shockingly low A-Level results ‘because they pay higher fees’

Fifteen of UK’s top universities accused of offering ‘back door’ routes to foreign students with shockingly low A-Level results ‘because they pay higher fees’

  • Recruiters tell undercover reporters poor grades will not stop foreign students 
  • ‘Foundation’ courses take students with the lowest A-level equivalent pass marks
  • Universities can charge international students above the £9,250 UK fee cap 

Some of the UK’s top universities have been accused of paying middlemen to offer foreign students with poor exam results ‘back door’ routes into their institutions – because they command higher fees.

Undercover filming of Russell Group university representatives appeared to show recruiters suggesting students from abroad could buy their way into higher education with the equivalent of C-level GCSEs.

Their UK counterparts would be required to have A or A* grades at A-level in order to be eligible for the same courses; but the institutions are said to be keen on foreign students because they can levy higher tuition fees than on their British counterparts.

The Russell Group is made up of 24 universities from across the UK; 15 have been implicated in the scandal following an investigation by The Sunday Times into international foundation courses designed to ease overseas students into degrees.

The group says international students are an ‘important part’ of its makeup; some universities said students can only move into full-time degree courses if they pick up good enough grades while on the pathway course.

 

The Sunday Times' reporters spoke to recruiters who acted on behalf of Russell Group institutions such as the University of Exeter (above)

The University of Manchester (pictured) is also one of the 15 Russell Group instiutions that operates international foundation courses for foreign students

In one case, recruiters told an undercover reporter not to apply for the course through admissions body Ucas

Some of the universities, such as Exeter, use the international student recruitment agency Into to handle entry to its international foundation course

The Sunday Times‘ investigation spoke to recruiters acting on behalf of a number of Russell Group academies, including Exeter University and Manchester University, as well as an agency that represents Nottingham, York and Durham.

Captured on hidden cameras, one recruitment official representing four Russell Group institutions told an undercover reporter: ‘International (students) pay more money and the (universities) will receive almost double, so they give leeway for international students.’

The foundation courses are not the first year of a university degree; instead, they act as an extra year of education for students that either do not meet academic or English language requirements.

Which Russell Group universities offer foundation courses? 

The Russell Group is made up of 24 self-selected universities across the UK. Of those, 15 offer international foundation courses designed to act as a bridge between school and university for foreign students, according to The Sunday Times.

  • Birmingham
  • Bristol
  • Cardiff
  • Durham
  • Exeter
  • Leeds
  • Liverpool
  • Manchester
  • Newcastle
  • Nottingham
  • QMU London
  • Queen’s University Belfast
  • Sheffield
  • Southampton
  • Warwick 

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Passing the course – which recruiters said was practically a formality – can then guarantee direct entry into a degree course, again running at uncapped fees.

Foreign students can pay many times what a UK student will in annual tuition fees; the Reddin survey of university tuition fees, published by the Complete University Guide in 2021, found annual fees could be almost £40,000 a year for foreign students.

UK students will pay no more than £9,250 a year in tuition fees thanks to a government-mandated cap.

The probe found that recruiters acting on behalf of the Russell Group universities, operating in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, were offering to arrange places on the international foundation courses for students with B and C grades at GCSE level, or even D and E grades at A-level.

UK students applying for the same courses, paying capped tuition fees, would need straight A or A* grades in order to get onto the same course with direct entry into first year.

One recruiter told the paper: ‘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 be able to enter these universities.’

The middlemen are reported to take a as much as a 20 per cent cut of the fees that would be paid by a first-year student, stacking up into millions of pounds across the institutions concerned.

In one case, undercover reporters spoke to representatives from external agency Into who, despite working for another company, wore university-branded lanyards and use official email addresses.

Others posing as parents of foreign children were directly referred to middlemen by the universities themselves. 

Recruiters, in some cases, explained that a child would need to apply to the university through an external agency rather than via admissions service Ucas.

Doing so would would mean there would be no external record of their entry into university via an international foundation course.

Into, and a number of the universities using recruiters to attract international students, told the paper that they were committed to fair admissions and upheld high quality standards for new learners.

In a statement to the Sunday Times, the Russell Group said: ‘International students are an important part of our student body, bringing diverse perspectives that enrich the learning environment. Revenue from international students is reinvested into high-quality teaching and learning to benefit all students.’

In a separate statement released on Saturday, it added: ‘International Foundation Year programmes at Russell Group universities…are different to degree programmes, have separate admissions processes and, crucially, different entry requirements, which have been incorrectly conflated in the article.

‘Our universities maintain high entry standards to their degree programmes to ensure that their offer remains of high quality, and that all students – whatever their pathway to university – are at an appropriate standard to study, both on entry and throughout their course. 

‘Universities maintain robust admissions policies to ensure an equitable and consistent process for all applicants.

‘Foundation year programmes have long proved to be effective pathways to university for both international and UK students. 

‘Most of our members also run foundation courses specifically for UK students, with similar entry requirements, designed to support students from underrepresented groups to access higher education and bridge the gap between different educational backgrounds. 

‘Entry to main degree programmes from these courses is not guaranteed.

‘The latest UCAS data shows domestic student numbers at Russell Group universities are rising faster than international student numbers. 

‘International students are an important part of our student body, bringing diverse perspectives that enrich the learning environment. 

‘Revenue from international students is reinvested into high-quality teaching and learning to benefit all students.’

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Jon Brady

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