Pathway providers hope for US bonanza

For-profit firms eye tie-ups with regional institutions ‘desperate’ to boost international intake

June 5, 2014

Source: Corbis

Jet stream: pathway students may grow by 10,000 annually in the medium term

“Desperate” universities in the US are expected to turn to for-profit firms to provide them with more international students in order to prop up their income following budget cuts.

An analysis has predicted that the number of students enrolled annually through “pathway programmes” – provided by companies that are often owned by private equity firms – could grow by 10,000 in the medium term.

Companies such as INTO University Partnerships and Study Group, which recruit and prepare international students for university through a foundation year, are looking to expand their businesses into the US because the UK is already saturated with pathway deals.

As of March this year, the biggest five pathway providers had partnerships with 56 institutions in the UK.

But less than 3 per cent of US institutions use foundation course providers, according to an analysis from consultants OC&C, which concluded this spring.

Mark Jeynes, a partner who leads OC&C’s education work, said that the UK market for pathway providers was now “mature” and therefore the pathway firms saw “other markets, the US being one, Europe the other, as offering other opportunities”. The analysis found that nearly one in five US universities surveyed had a “strong interest” in establishing a pathway programme, while a further quarter had “some interest”.

Interest was particularly strong among regional universities – which do not rank highly in national tables – where nearly four in 10 expressed a “strong” interest in establishing a pathway programme.

This is where the bulk of pathway programme growth will occur, according to the analysis.

Mr Jeynes said that the regional universities were “more desperate” to increase their revenues through international students than nationally ranked universities.

The majority of regional US universities wanted to boost their international student numbers for financial reasons, whereas others tended to cite other motives, such as diversifying the student body, the research shows.

The US had “woken up” to the fact that it could recruit more international students, Mr Jeynes said, and if pathway providers strike up more deals in the US, this could put “some pressure” on their ability to meet their own recruitment targets in the UK, although the firms predict that more and more students will seek to use the pathway route overall.

However, despite the expanding US market, even an increase of 10,000 pathway students would be relatively minor compared with the 340,000 new international undergraduates who enrolled in the US in 2012-13 (according to data from the Institute of International Education). “We believe there’s going to be growth…but the growth will not be as rapid as some are expecting,” Mr Jeynes said.

Many US states have caps on the number of out-of-state students their universities can enrol, and community colleges provided a cheaper alternative for international students, he pointed out.

There was also likely to be a “certain amount of pushback [from academic staff] because there’s some nervousness about outsourcing”, he added.

Nearly half of the universities analysed by OC&C that had a “low” interest in a tie-up with a pathway provider cited a “desire to protect institutions’ reputation”. Mr Jeynes said that those universities were concerned that the firms would provide sub-par education or students.

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