Robert Halfon, the universities minister, is understood to have held talks with university leaders on Sunday afternoon over claims that recruitment agents are offering places to overseas students with significantly lower grades than UK applicants.
An undercover investigation by The Sunday Times found that 15 Russell Group universities were offering international students one-year “pathway” courses, or foundation programmes, with low grade requirements.
Overseas students who complete the one-year International Foundation are typically moved on to the university’s undergraduate course.
The investigation found that foreign students were able to use the one-year courses to get onto competitive degree courses with just C grades at GCSE, while domestic students are required to have A or A* grades at A-level.
One recruitment agent described the courses as a “back door” route to top UK universities.
‘Starting to go crazy’
He told an undercover reporter that the use of pathway courses by overseas students was “starting to go crazy”.
He said: “The [normal] direct entry is a bit tricky in the UK… unless you are an A student. It is like a back door to be able to enter these universities.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: “While universities are responsible for setting their own entry requirements, we believe it is important that high standards are maintained, and UK students here have access to a domestically competitive university sector.
“We are concerned by reports of domestic students being asked to meet a higher standard than international students for entry into university. We are urgently investigating the situation and we have already engaged in discussions with the sector.”
Universities have become increasingly reliant on income from overseas students as the real-term value of domestic fee income has fallen.
Tuition fees for UK students have been effectively frozen at £9,250 for the past decade.
There is no cap on fees for foreign undergraduates, who pay up to four times more than UK students.
‘Different to degree programmes’
A Russell Group spokesman said that International Foundation Year programmes are “different to degree programmes, have separate admissions processes and, crucially, different entry requirements”.
He added: “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.”