Universities are increasingly offering international students who do not meet their entry criteria the chance to join in the second year if they complete a one-year cramming course taught on campus by a private provider.
Two Scottish institutions, the University of Stirling and Heriot-Watt University, already run partnerships with private firm Study Group. They offer courses billed as "a direct path" into the second year of their four-year degrees. English universities are following suit.
Last week, Study Group announced a partnership with Keele University. It will charge international students with "top high-school graduation grades" £11,600 for year-long courses that lead into the second year of some undergraduate degrees. The firm is due to launch a similar course with the University of Huddersfield. Other institutions have similar arrangements with Into University Partnerships.
Students taking the foundation diploma at Keele's International Study Centre will be taught modules that are co-designed and validated by Keele, but taught by Study Group employees. The diploma is offered in computing, business and international relations, and students will receive intensive English-language tuition. With the right grades, they can enter the second year of the corresponding degree at Keele.
The University and College Union branch at Keele criticised the plan, which it said would create a "shadow" private university on campus.
It said Keele would lose control of admissions because it would not have the power to accept or reject candidates, and added that the amount students were supposed to learn in one year was unrealistic.
Diploma students need an International English Language Testing System (IELTS) score of five, against Keele's entry requirement of six. Candidates with a score of three can join the course if they study for two additional terms first.
Peter Fletcher, an executive officer at Keele's UCU branch, said: "We may find ourselves burdened with students who are not up to our usual standards."
Rama Thirunamachandran, deputy vice-chancellor at Keele, strongly denied that there would be a deterioration in standards and welcomed the partnership, which he hoped would attract 250 students a year.
"Progression will be strictly against standards set by the university - that is sacrosanct. The curriculum is being jointly developed by Keele and Study Group, and will be validated in the normal way ... We will also appoint external examiners and a 'link' tutor from each university department."
Study Group employees would be approved by Keele, and only the best students would enter the second year, Mr Thirunamachandran said.