Universities are in urgent need of nationally agreed guidelines for the import and export of students, speakers at an international education conference said this week.
The British Council has called for a national admissions policy amid concerns that admissions tutors are favouring high-fee paying foreign applicants over home students. The call comes alongside proposals to give UK students more incentives to study abroad in an effort to maintain the country's position in the lucrative overseas recruitment market.
Piera Gerrard, deputy marketing director for the British Council, said institutions that tinkered with entry criteria for overseas students or packed foreign students of one nationality on a degree course invited problems.
She said: "Institutions are not supposed to set quotas for the admission of any type of student. They need to take a fresh look at their admissions policies - and we need a national policy."
Ms Gerrard spoke at the annual conference of Ukcosa, the universities advisory body for international students, held at Reading University.
A Sunday Times article published last weekend says that a number of university courses favour foreign students by setting them lower A-level standards than home applicants.
Steven Schwartz, vice-chancellor of Brunel University and chairman of the national inquiry into university admissions, told the conference of his fear that countries that supply British institutions with most of their foreign students could soon demand a supply of UK students in return.
Institutions might need to invest in study scholarships abroad, and to provide more foreign-language teaching to meet this demand, he said. "We must turn the one-way traffic into a true alliance."
The discussion came as the Department for Education and Skills and the Home Office began a consultation on plans to set up a register of institutions offering places to overseas candidates to help stamp out bogus providers and students.
At the Centre for Reform this week, Ivor Crewe, president of Universities UK, said universities were not discriminating against UK students, arguing that numbers of UK undergraduates are in effect fixed by the funding councils.
"Universities are not accepting less well qualified overseas students for places that would otherwise be available to UK students," he said. "They are expanding the number of places in the university to admit overseas students, whose fee income is critical to the financial future of the university."
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