The University of Bedfordshire appeared to bend its academic rules to give students sponsored by the Saudi Arabian government preferential treatment over those without sponsorship, Times Higher Education has learned.
Sponsored students were allowed three attempts at an exam before having to retake the year, and were permitted to study units from two different academic stages, apparently flouting the university’s own academic regulations.
They were treated differently from other students because they would have lost their government sponsorship if they had not been allowed to progress to the next year, documents seen by THE show.
The preferential treatment, evidence of which has been passed on to the Quality Assurance Agency, centres on the order in which students had to retake academic units and exams.
Bedfordshire’s academic regulations for 2012-13 state that students who do not pass a unit on their second attempt may retake it in the next academic year. They are then allowed two further attempts at the exam.
But sponsored students who had failed the exam twice were allowed a third resit without having to retake the year.
In an internal email justifying the policy seen by THE, Mary Malcolm, the deputy vice-chancellor (academic), wrote: “Sponsored students lose their remaining funding and years of study, if they do not progress. This is a verifiable fact.”
She argued that the university was not allowing the sponsored students more exam attempts than others, but was simply allowing them to take the third attempt before having to repeat the unit.
“That is their best chance, and I can square it with my sense of equity by its not being additional (just inverse order) and because they do genuinely have funding issues not affecting others,” she wrote.
She also pointed out that other students with sponsorship arrangements, for example with the NHS, were given similar treatment, so the policy was not confined only to Saudi Arabian students.
The university also allowed students to take units from more than one academic stage at the same time, a practice sometimes known as “trailing” a unit, emails seen by THE suggest.
But its regulations say that “students must have satisfactorily completed their studies at one academic stage before they are eligible to progress to the next academic stage. Students are not permitted to trail failed or incomplete units.”
Geoffrey Alderman, professor of history and politics at the University of Buckingham and a long-standing critic of academic standards, said of the preferential rules: “This takes a lot of justifying. How can Bedfordshire justify such differential treatment?
“If I were a Bedfordshire student I would start asking this question. Meanwhile, I expect the QAA to launch a formal investigation.”
The QAA confirmed that it has been informed of concerns over the students’ treatment, which occurred during 2012.
A spokeswoman for the QAA added that if during a review the agency found that a university was not following its own regulations, this could lead to a recommendation or, in more serious cases, a negative judgement against the institution.
University staff with experience of coordinating cohorts of students sponsored by foreign governments have told THE that they were not aware of similar differential treatment occurring elsewhere in the sector.
Another source said that while embassies sometimes asked universities for updates on how their sponsored students were performing at university, or for extra study help, he had not heard of an arrangement where exam resit arrangements were changed.
In April, Bedfordshire concluded an investigation into complaints about the treatment of the Saudi students, but found that there were no grounds to justify the allegations.
A spokeswoman for Bedfordshire said in a statement: “We would like to make clear the university has never permitted the preferential treatment of students by virtue of their nationality or course of study. It applies its regulations consistently and fairly.”
The Saudi Arabian Cultural Bureau in London did not respond with a comment in time for THE’s deadline.