Finishing schools or fleecers of fools?

August 21, 1998

Overseas students are flocking to the UK to do costly courses carrying no qualifications. Are they being ripped off? Phil Baty reports

Every year thousands of foreign students come to the United Kingdom to study in universities and tutorial colleges but leave without gaining any qualifications.

Their reasons for coming are varied but some, especially Americans, come, not for a degree or a diploma, but for a "study abroad" experience. Often they get exactly what they came for but sometimes they can feel they have been exploited by money-grabbing UK universities.

Critics claim that institutions selling their reputations or trading on the UK education sector's international cachet, attract high fees from gullible foreign students who are barred from using most of the facilities and are given only half-hearted tuition.

Although there are no figures - the system is essentially unregulated - it is estimated that as many as 40,000 of the 200,000 overseas students in UK higher education are not on degree or diploma-bearing courses.

"There can be a rather cynical bums-on-seats approach to students who come to Britain," says Margaret Westwood, former chair of the British Universities Transatlantic Exchange Association and deputy dean at Surrey University. "The foreign students who come for just one semester, or for an academic year, but are never part of the award system, still pay lovely money. They are paying customers, and many institutions recruit like crazy. The system can be subject to abuse."

The biggest market for overseas undergraduates is in the United States, with Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh universities particularly favoured destinations. UK universities attract about 16,000 US students on to courses where they get only academic "credit" to take home with them. "Americans come here for study-abroad semesters," says Westwood, "where they take their third undergraduate year out, and do a study abroad experience, like a 20th-century equivalent of a grand tour or finishing school."

Many are happy with this arrangement. "A lot of the students won't care what happens to them, as long as they can say they have been (to a UK university)," says BUTEX's Ms Westwood. "Some American university kids are paying $16,000 in tuition fees for their education at home, so they will think nothing of paying $6,000 for a year at a major British institution. However they are treated, it will still look good on their CVs."

For major UK institution most Americans still read Oxford and Cambridge. Many students are apparently desperate for a slice of an almost mythological, Brideshead-style Oxbridge experience. (See box) Clive Saville, chief executive of the United Kingdom Council for Overseas Student Affairs, says that the most important thing "is that there should be clear agreement between the institution the student is coming from in the US and the UK institution, about what they look to the UK institution to provide. It is in no institution's interests to abuse or rip off students, because news will be back to the US by email in minutes and the institution will not get next year's cohort of students."

Saville says the visiting students have the same protection as anyone in a contractual arrangement. "Institutions are increasingly careful to make sure they have defined what students will get. They have to be very careful, especially in the US context where there is always a risk of litigation."

He denies that students' expectations are low. "It is up to the individual to judge the market value of institutions," he said. "Experience of a different system in itself can be worthwhile and very positive."

Private tutorial colleges

It is feared that large numbers of foreign students could be getting a raw deal at private institutions which purport to be attached to Britain's universities.

There are about 3,000 private colleges, many of which are genuine and make no false promises about their provision. But there are fears that many only narrowly fall within trading standards rules.

Alarm bells rang in 1996, when Warnborough College, Oxford, a private college in Oxfordshire, was exposed for recruiting overseas students who thought they were going to Oxford University.

The college, which closed after it was dropped from a US government-backed educational loans scheme, claimed to offer "an Oxford tutorial experience" for American students. Oxford University was mentioned 14 times - more times than the college itself - in promotional material and Oxford had threatened legal action.

In October 1995 there was a media storm when 15 students, who had each paid over Pounds 10,000, walked out claiming they were conned into believing they were joining Oxford University.

In a more audacious move, a college purporting to be "a new British university sector college" - Islington College of London - was traced by The Times in 1995 to an answer machine in an East London flat. It had begun a recruitment drive across 20 US campuses.

The Oxford experience

Bob Schuettinger, a go-between for US undergraduates who want the Oxbridge experience for their "Junior Year Abroad", as it is known, set up the Washington International Studies Council in Oxford in 1985. Schuettinger works with Trinity, New and St Antony's colleges in Oxford. He arranges placements for about 80 students a year, and estimates that Oxford has about 400 so-called "associate students", with another 300 "visiting students". He has a list of satisfied customers, who are promised that in exchange for about Pounds 4,000 tuition fees, they will be "taught in the same way as degree candidates, by the same tutors and to the same standard under the academic supervision of the governing body". Most of the time that is what they get, and it often suits the students.

But as "associate" students, Professor Schuettinger's clients are not candidates for Oxford University degrees, nor are they members of the university. They get an "academic record", written by their tutors, of what they study and how they get on, which is passed to their US institution, which integrates the credits into its own degrees.

Despite the limitations, many of the associate students are happy. "I consider myself quite fortunate to have been able to participate in the Oxford programme," one student who attended St Edmund Hall wrote to Schuettinger. "The main impression with which one walks away from the experience has got to be that, academically speaking, the sky is the limit at Oxford."

Schuettinger claims that one Oxford bursar told him never to deal with the poorer colleges - they're just in it for the money. "There is a general worry," says Schuettinger, "that some universities will use graduate students to do all the teaching, because they're cheaper. They treat these students in a second-rate way, and just take their fees."

In Oxford's own table of "students in residence" for 1997-98, while rich colleges list only five or six or fewer "additional students", the poorer colleges - St Edmund Hall, Mansfield, Wadham - take between 30 and 40 additional students each. St Catherine's College has 55 "additional students".

Geoffrey Bourne-Taylor, bursar at St Edmund Hall, concedes that "it tends to be the less well-off colleges who take most students - it is a good source of income". But he defends the quality of the provision the associate students receive. "We are almost obsessed about giving the students what they think they're buying," he said.

But the relationship between WISC and Oxford colleges has at times become very sour. WISC has fallen out with two colleges.

The relationship between St Edmund Hall and its US associate students began to crumble in 1994 when Schuettinger wrote to the college to say that "the college has always ignored my many protests at the way the students have been treated over the last five years". One WISC student, from the University of Chicago, complained in 1994 that both her first-term courses were taught by a graduate student, that tutorials were cancelled without notice, and that she had not been allocated a tutor for her second term. "There exists a bias against the so-called 'WISC' student at Oxford," she said. "We are perceived as people who have come to the university through the back door, after paying a substantial fee. Perhaps St Edmund Hall accepts associate students, without discrimination, to alleviate certain financial pressures."

Relations were further hit when two students complained that a student adviser employed by St Edmund Hall to assist associate students had been so slow in delivering academic transcripts that their graduation from Georgetown University had been delayed, jeopardising their chances of US government job interviews. WISC and the college parted company in 1995.

Teddy Hall now recruits directly from US institutions, and has up to 30 associate students at a time. Bourne-Taylor said that he could not remember in detail why the college stopped working with WISC.

He said the current provision was very successful. "The students are paying for an Oxford experience and in that respect they are given it," he said. "They are sworn in as members of the college with the approval of the junior common room, they live in and are mixed well. They are very highly qualified, come from the Ivy League and are serious students."

Paul Flather, director of communications for Oxford University, said that the arrangements for associate students were up to the colleges. "But the central university does have a regulatory framework," he said. "The university is keen to ensure no one coming to Oxford is misled about what they'll be offered. If any people are disappointed, the university will be keen to look into these matters."

He said it was important that "students coming in know what they are going to get and the college delivers exactly that."

WHO REGULATES THE 20TH-CENTURY GRAND TOUR?

Nationally, the situation is poorly monitored. The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals has guidelines and codes of practice only for the recruitment and support of international students accepted onto award-bearing courses.

The British Universities Transatlantic Exchange Association provides little more than the power of peer pressure against institutions behaving badly - it now has 80 members - and even this has limited impact. Margaret Westwood says: "Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh, the most popular institutions for Americans, are not members of BUTEX. We have zilch data on what they're doing."

Most of the regulation comes from the colleges that act as intermediaries between the students and British universities. "One way to monitor for bona fide partnerships is through the intermediate agencies - they are in the business and they know what they are getting," says Ms Westwood. "If the institution doesn't provide what is expected, it can get dropped from the approved lists."

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