Luton University offered places to overseas students who lacked minimum entry requirements, its quality chief warned last year as the university was starting a scheme to delegate overseas admissions decisions to commercial partners, writes Phil Baty.
Documents seen by The Times Higher show that Luton piloted a "preferred agents" scheme in 2003 that took admissions decisions out of the hands of Luton academics and allowed selected agents in Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and Nigeria to make formal offers to students on behalf of the university.
Richard Harris, the university's dean of quality assurance, raised concerns in March 2004 about the scheme and reported that "several" students had been given unconditional offers without the necessary English-language qualifications. But the scheme has continued.
A document describing the 2003 pilot "preferred agents" scheme, by Steve Pettitt, the deputy vice-chancellor, seen by The Times Higher , explains that the system will "allow some agents the ability to process international applications without prior reference to (the university's) admissions department".
It says: "Agents will be issued with university headed, watermarked and numbered notepaper, plus a disk with a series of formatted offer and visa letters."
The initiative began as part of a campaign at Luton to boost the number of full-fee paying overseas students. This required students to pay 50 per cent of course fees "in advance of their arrival in the UK" and included incentive schemes for agents.
A letter from Tim Boatswain, then pro vice-chancellor, to one agent in Pakistan, in December 2003, says: "As part of a special campaign the university will be offering an additional 2.5 per cent commission for all students recruited between now and the start of the second semester."
The overseas recruitment drive and the financial incentive to get "bums on seats" has raised a number of quality concerns.
Last March, Dr Harris wrote to Professor Boatswain outlining "teething problems" with the preferred agents scheme.
He said: "We should restate the university regulations in the agents'
contracts... as I have become aware of several cases where students have been admitted unconditionally by preferred agents without the necessary English-language qualifications... You will appreciate the whole issue has significant implications for academic standards at the university."
A university spokeswoman said Dr Harris' memo was written before the preferred agents scheme came into effect, so the students to whom he referred could not have come through the scheme.
She said: "The only cases of which we are aware where students have been accepted without formal English qualifications are those who have a good standard of English."
Dr Pettitt said: "To achieve and maintain (preferred) status, the agents should have completed a rigorous training course. They also have to adhere to the university's strict guidelines, which include ensuring that all applicants meet minimum entry requirements.
"In the very rare event where a suitable applicant has non-standard qualifications, agents are clearly instructed to refer the application to the university for a decision. Such applicants are therefore only ever admitted on academic grounds."