Queen's University Belfast has just launched a joint venture with INTO University Partnerships, which runs academic-preparation and English-language courses for international students. However, accounts filed at Companies House show that the firm's partnerships with the universities of East Anglia, Exeter, Newcastle and Glasgow Caledonian were running at a loss as of July 2008.
The partnership with Newcastle University had a deficit of £941,621, while the joint venture with the University of Exeter lost £723,583. A joint venture with The Manchester College, a further education institution, was £1,423,339 in the red. As a whole, INTO University Partnerships made a loss of £1,173,239.
According to Stephen Healy, INTO's director of strategy and development, the company's performance was "ahead of plan".
"We do not for a moment dispute that INTO made losses in its second year. In light of the fact that we are a young privately funded start-up, the loss is to be expected," he said.
"We are on course to finish our third financial year in the black."
Between August last year and this July, more than 4,300 international students entered INTO programmes, he added.
"That is up from 2,600 in 2007-08 and from more than 400 in 2006-07, when we had one partner. More crucially, given the global environment and challenges with the new visa system, our confirmations and forecasts for this September are going to be up by a minimum of 35 per cent from last September."
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, called on universities to review their partnerships with INTO in light of the "worrying" figures.
"We have always said that the focus of higher education should be to provide a learning environment for students, not an earning environment for privateers," she said.
"The overseas student market is of vital importance to UK higher education, not an add-on to be hived off to the highest bidder."