Lower-grade foreign queue-jumpers a 'myth'

Overseas students beat UK peers’ tariff scores on many courses, analysis suggests

May 2, 2013

Source: Alamy

Not the weakest link: international students have higher entry tariffs than their UK peers on many programmes at UK universities

The long-standing suspicion that universities accept international students with weak qualifications to boost their income appears to be unfounded, according to research by Times Higher Education.

At some institutions, such as the highly international London School of Economics, it is British students who have fewer tariff points.

The issue flared up last summer after a newspaper sting found a Beijing agent promising low entry grades to Chinese students.

This prompted David Willetts, the universities and science minister, to warn the sector not to admit those “who cannot cope or who slow down their fellow students”.

But according to data obtained from the student guidance website BestCourse4me, on half the 374 undergraduate courses with the largest intakes in 2010-11, non-UK students had more Ucas tariff points than their British counterparts.

Anna Vignoles, professor of education at the University of Cambridge, said there had “always been an assumption that foreign students are coming in with lower grades”.

But the data indicated that this was a “myth”, she said.

While previous figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency have established that international students on average have the same tariff points as their peers from the UK, it is not thought that scores have been compared course by course before.

Because of the limitations of the data, it was not possible to categorise students as paying either UK/European Union or international tuition fees, but nearly two-thirds of non-UK undergraduates in 2010-11 came from outside the EU, according to Hesa.

At the LSE, where in 2011-12 nearly half its undergraduates hailed from abroad, non-UK students had a higher average tariff on all seven courses compared.

On the six courses compared at the University of St Andrews - where more than four in 10 undergraduates are international - British students also had fewer Ucas points.

An LSE spokesman said that its entry standards were uniform across the board, but students who achieved them with the International Baccalaureate were rewarded with more Ucas tariff points than their peers with A levels, which explained the difference. St Andrews did not have enough time to interpret the data before THE’s deadline.

Toxic legacy

The suspicion that international students win preferential access in return for higher fees has proved toxic for UK universities.

Last June, two Daily Telegraph reporters revealed undercover footage of an agent in Beijing claiming that it would be possible to enter Cardiff Business School with three Cs at A level, even though its standard offer was AAB.

Mr Willetts wrote that the claims - which ran with the headline “How foreign students with lower grades jump the university queue” - were “salutary” for the sector, although he cautioned against drawing “false conclusions from this piece of investigative journalism”.

Despite the overall parity recorded, the data do show a long tail of courses where non-UK students have significantly fewer Ucas points, which was not replicated to such an extent by home students. There were 26 courses where they had less than three-quarters of the points held by UK students, and these were disproportionately concentrated at less selective universities.

But according to the institutions involved, this was because non-UK entrants often held a combination of A levels and their own national qualifications, which did not register Ucas tariff scores.

Professor Vignoles said this indicated that less selective universities were more likely to accept foreign qualifications uncategorised by Ucas.

The data also reveal that there were 16 undergraduate courses where non-UK students outnumbered British ones, most commonly accounting, finance and management studies programmes.

There were four such courses at the University of Warwick and three at both the LSE and Imperial College London.

For reasons of confidentiality, BestCourse4me was not allowed to release data on courses where there were fewer than eight students on either the UK or the non-UK cohort. Nearly six in 10 of the programmes compared were at Russell Group institutions as they tend to have large course enrolments.

Part-time students were included, but mature students, who have highly variable qualifications, were not.

A Universities UK spokesman described the data as “at best a partial view”.


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Reader's comments (6)

This is largely related to Russel Group and similar, who are more oversubscribed than other universities, and this can afford to be more selective. Less popular universities might see things a little differently.
Richard Budd Absolutely right. 'Recruiting universities' are enrolling overseas students with no legitimate HE qualifications onto level 6 'top-up' programmes, and then progressing them onto Masters a year later. The thousands of pounds of potential income is a very persuasive argument for abandoning academic standards, on both matriculation and achievement.
Thanks for a great article. There seems to be a few take home messages from this story. First of all, international students, just like UK students are a heterogeneous bunch, some with good grades some with worse grades. More importantly however, it seems that international agents are causing a great deal of problems, for universities as well as for international students. After the Daily telegraph story about the agent’s misrepresentation of intake exam levels, universities had do damage control stating publicly that they do not do preferential treatment for international students with low grades to boost their revenues. International students on the other hand are harmed by the bad reputation that education agents are causing through unethical work standards. It seems then that universities as well as international students should rely less on education agents. Indeed, new solutions are needed that can respond to the current trend of increasing demand for international education.
Richard - yes you're right, our sample is slanted towards the more selective institutions due to the data limitations. Even so, as four in ten were from outside the Russell Group (not a perfect proxy for selectivity, of course) you would still have thought we'd find some trace of sharp practice if this was concentrated at the universities with lower entrance standards and/or a greater need for cash. Anecdotally, however, academics seem more concerned with English standards than entrance qualifications, and here it seems there is a real problem, as we reported last year: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/420938.article Sharon - it's true that international students have become a real hot potato, and taking the agent business in-house might seem like a logical step for the sector as a whole. Still, it would probably take years to set up, given the local knowledge needed, and if done by individual universities I assume it would be very costly to cover the geographical range unis currently have through agents. You could set up a collective agent for the whole sector, but this could be difficult. If a Chinese student, for example, was suitable for a dozen different UK unis, how would it be decided which ones they apply for?
International agents should be monitored by their respective universities, and conversely universities can sometimes demand of agents arbitrary and unrealistic recruitment targets that require corner cutting and aggressive selling If targets not reached, contract may be broken unilaterally by university. Is it not the case that universities get the agents they deserve?
Surely a massive flaw in this analysis is that it only compares overseas entrants holding qualifications within the UCAS tariff - probably just a minority of total Overseas entrants at UK universities?

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