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Russell Group Universities Face Scrutiny Over International Admission Standards

Universities are rejecting claims by a Sunday Times report that British students are being “squeezed out” of university places by overseas students and that these international applicants are being offered places on courses for lower grades than their domestic counterparts because they pay higher tuition fees. The report follows the Education Minister’s call for Universities UK, which serves as the voice of universities across the whole of the UK, to pledge to review their entry requirements and admissions code of conduct. 

The Times investigation included undercover video evidence of Russell Group university recruiting agents appearing to suggest that international students are able to avoid the standard grade requirement for undergraduate degrees through the “backdoor” method of pathway courses.  These foundation courses serve as an extra year of education for students who do not yet meet the academic or English language prerequisites for undergraduate degrees. According to the Times, 30 per cent of foreign students (30,000 students) starting university in the UK are doing so through this program. 

In response, Universities UK said that their admissions processes are being  misrepresented and that it is essential that the public has confidence in the current system being “fair, transparent and robust”.

Furthermore, a Russell Group spokesperson argued that the report did not include that, according to the latest UCAS data, the numbers of domestic students at Russell Group universities are rising at a much higher rate than that of international students. The spokesperson further argued that the report conflated admissions processes and entry requirements for International Foundation Year programmes with those for undergraduate degree programmes. UK students are also eligible for foundation years, with many foundation year programs designed to support those from different educational backgrounds and groups underrepresented in higher education. 

The spokesperson also said, "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.”

"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 recent weeks, there has been a brighter spotlight on university finances and tuition fees. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that the capping of domestic undergraduate fees in England at £9,250 has resulted in the funding for UK students being at its lowest since 2011 in real terms, with the government announcing recently that these fees will remain frozen for at least another year. Universities have therefore become disproportionately reliant on subsidising these losses by using international student fees as a stream of revenue, with a Guardian investigation concluding that international students accounted for one in every five pounds of income received by UK universities. 

In response to a question on external considerations that impact the University’s admissions processes, a spokesperson for the University of St Andrews told The Saint, “The Scottish Government caps the number of Scottish students universities are able to admit each year, and that phenomenon alone determines the number of offers we, and other Scottish universities, are able to make to Scottish applicants.” 

On the measures taken by the University to ensure a standard of conduct amongst agents involved in student recruitment abroad, the spokesperson said, “We rigorously vet, conduct dual [sic] diligence and select educational agents based on their reputation, track record, and adherence to ethical standards. Emphasis is placed on agents demonstrating transparency, integrity, and compliance with UKVI regulations.” 

The spokesperson also said, “We provide comprehensive training and guidance to our educational agents, ensuring they have a clear understanding of our admissions policies, procedures, ethical expectations and selection criteria. This includes regular updates on any changes to our policies or to our programmes by both delivering in-person office visits and training and virtual training.  The University maintains clear and transparent guidelines regarding the qualifications necessary for both undergraduate and postgraduate admissions. Our agents are fully informed of these criteria, and we do not lower them to accommodate agents’ requirements under any circumstances.” 

They also outlined four additional measures taken by the University including requiring adherence to the National Code of Ethical Practice for Education Agents, monitoring and oversight, feedback mechanisms involving “feedback from students, staff, and other stakeholders”, and periodic review of partnerships with agents. 

They added, “The University is committed to maintaining the highest standards of conduct for any educational agents involved in student recruitment abroad.” 

Image by Oliver Keenan

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