When students become customers and universities are transformed into businesses, few of the traditions associated with the ideals of academia remain untouched. The invisible hand of the market has a unique capacity for altering the purpose and orientation of institutions and their practices.
The recruitment of undergraduates has not remained immune to the incessant prodding of this not-so-invisible hand. Increasingly, it is evident that universities are no longer interested simply in getting more bums on seats - they are particularly keen on high fee-paying overseas students. Gaining a share of the global market for international students has become an important objective for universities. There is little money to be made educating British undergraduates; but overseas students, who pay between £6,000 and Pounds 10,000 a year, provide a tidy profit. That is why universities that want to secure their long-term viability need to have access to this lucrative income stream.
Of course, an increase in the number of overseas students can have a positive influence on campus life. Universities tend to benefit from a robust international student culture. Overseas students help expose the university to fascinating experiences and play a valuable role in building a vibrant academic community. Unfortunately, recruitment campaigns targeting them have little to do with the project of encouraging the internationalisation of academic life. Their sole objective is to improve the financial position of their institution.
There is disturbing evidence that many university admissions policies have been altered de facto to recruit the maximum number of overseas students.
Last week, The Sunday Times published an expose of the double standard that admissions officers apply in selecting undergraduates for popular courses.
In a variety of institutions, the requirement expected of overseas applicants appears to be negotiable. The Sunday Times found that the same admissions tutors tended to demand lower entry requirements from overseas students than home applicants.
Two reporters pretended to be a home and an overseas student - both with the same A-level grades. They were treated very differently. While the "home student" was rejected, the other was strongly encouraged to apply.
Once the tutor heard that the latter would pay international fees, the entry requirement became "slightly lower". At another institution, the "overseas applicant", whose alleged qualification fell far short of the formal entry requirements, was told: "You'd be surprised at some of the applications we do receive." Of the 28 British universities investigated, the reporters discovered that more than a quarter - among them Oxford University, the London School of Economics and Edinburgh University - "offered more encouragement to the prospective students from overseas".
Of course, admissions tutors are entitled to exercise a degree of flexibility when dealing with overseas applicants. And, given the heterogeneous background of students coming from abroad, universities have a justifiable case for exercising discretion. There is even a legitimate argument for recruiting some able overseas students whose formal achievements might be lower than the standard requirements for entry to a particular course.
Such flexibility, however, should not be driven by narrow financial imperatives. As matters stand, we are in danger of sending out signals that fee-paying overseas students can buy their way into the university system, which can only have a corrosive effect on academic life. Once money becomes a criterion for selection, how long before it begins to exercise the way students are treated? And how long before the awarding of degrees becomes influenced by the exigencies of financial expediency?
Professor of social policy
School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research