British students not being ‘squeezed out’ by overseas applicants, say universities | Students

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Universities have rejected claims that British students are being “squeezed out” by international applicants, including allegations that overseas students are admitted with lower entry requirements than those required for domestic students.

University leaders said the claims were “mendacious” because the reporting by the Sunday Times ignored figures showing rising numbers of UK students enrolled at Russell Group universities, and unfairly compared entry requirements on non-degree courses with those of mainstream undergraduate courses.

A spokesperson for the Russell Group of universities said that foundation year programmes, designed to prepare students for further study, “are different to degree programmes, have separate admissions processes and, crucially, different entry requirements”.

Foundation programmes for international students typically include English-language lessons and charge fees of about £16,000. Those who pass usually then progress to a mainstream undergraduate degree course.

“Foundation year programmes have long proved to be effective pathways to university for both international and UK students. Most of our members also run foundation courses specifically for UK students, with similar entry requirements, designed to support students from underrepresented groups to access higher education and bridge the gap between different educational backgrounds,” the spokesperson said.

“Entry to main degree programmes from these courses is not guaranteed.”

The Sunday Times report also included claims by agents recruiting for various Russell Group universities, who were recorded appearing to say that the foundation courses offered easier entry.

Universities contacted by the Guardian said they were investigating the comments and were not able to immediately comment.

University leaders also rebutted claims that domestic students were being “squeezed out” of places in higher education by pointing to data showing record numbers of UK residents enrolled on first-year undergraduate degree courses in 2021-22, while the number of non-UK students slumped by more than 10,000 compared with the previous year.

While there are rising numbers of students from countries such as India, the number of undergraduates coming from EU countries has collapsed in the aftermath of Brexit, from more than 30,000 to about 13,000 a year.

“The latest Ucas data shows domestic student numbers at Russell Group universities are rising faster than international student numbers,” the spokesperson said.

The University of Exeter, a Russell Group member, recruited fewer non-UK students last year than in 2019, while the number of undergraduates from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland increased by 865 during the same time.

Universities have become reliant on earnings from international students. Domestic undergraduate tuition fees in England have been frozen at £9,250 since 2016, and have since been eroded by high inflation. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that as a result, funding for UK students will be at its lowest since 2011 in real terms.

However, universities are free to raise international student fees, meaning they make up an increasingly high proportion of their income. A Guardian investigation last year found that international students accounted for one in every five pounds in income received by UK universities.

Last week, the government officially confirmed that tuition fees in England would remain frozen for a further year, while maintenance loans for students in England would rise by 2.5%.

The Department for Education’s own equality impact assessment – released late on Friday – concluded that the 2.5% increase “will have a negative impact for students”, because an increase of at least 15% would be required to keep pace with inflation. It also found that women, mature students and those from low income backgrounds would be disproportionately affected.