QAA to the rescue on international foundation programmes

Last week's coverage in The Sunday Times generates action on quality, but not from the regulator

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

On reflection, the odd thing about last weekend’s story about international foundation year students taking the places of home students wasn’t the conspiracy-theory trappings (the clandestine recordings of international agents, the idea that large widely advertised international recruitment strategies were somehow “secret”).

It was the range of responses. We heard from the named institutions and their representative bodies, and from commentators ranging from Nick Hillman to Allison Pearson. We heard from ministers and backbench MPs. Even on the promise of action from DfE.

But there was nothing from the Office for Students.

For a regulator that has historically been galvanised into immediate action by reports on spelling and grammar requirements, or on the activities of rogue student societies, this was odd. Where were the threats of de-registration, the fines of “up to half-a-million pounds”, the stern letter from Susan Lapworth?

To be clear, I’m not complaining. A knee-jerk reaction generally does more harm than good. But on something as existential as allegations that international students were joining undergraduate courses without the skills or support needed to succeed, you would have welcomed a little bit of a fact-finding mission, just to put the record straight.

Instead, we get concerted action from Universities UK, who has commissioned the Quality Assurance Agency to undertake a rapid review of international foundation programmes, that will also compare entry requirements for these with equivalent foundation programmes aimed at home students.

There will also be work on a review and update to both the Agent Quality Framework and the Admissions Code of practice, and further activity on driving adoption and compliance.

This – if I’m honest – feels a little bit like the old fashioned world of co-regulation. The sector itself admits there may be issues worth investigating, sets up a high quality investigation from a body with expertise in the area, and review appropriate sector agreed standards. True, DfE is also probably writing letters to VCs – but there are some issues an exchange of letters won’t get into, you do need a proper review sometimes.

Concerns over international agents are far from new, of course, and in certain parts of the sector it has been seen as the likely next big scandal. Honestly, the poor quality of The Sunday Times’ investigation has let the sector off the hook here a little. But we do get the chance to see co-regulation once again prove its worth.

4 responses to “QAA to the rescue on international foundation programmes

  1. I still can’t get my head around the fact that this has come from Universities UK. They are a representative body, acting like a regulator. Where did they get the idea that they can review what their members are doing? Why do they think they need to ‘take action’?

    1. They did the same with ‘grade inflation ‘, producing a requirement (which technically cannot be a requirement, as they have no remit to require things) for institutions to publish annual degree outcomes statements assessing their first and 2:1s. That was designed to head off the OfS (which did not work, as the OfS fundamentally does not care about co-regulation and nuanced arguments; it is committed to numbers coming down).

      This time seems different, and the driver seems to be to provide reassurance for the DfE / public directly (presumably acknowledging that the OfS is already struggling hugely with it’s remit – and is now years behind on commitments re other reviews, with very mixed views on the success of the reviews it has managed to eventually grind out) and possibly to address an actual issue (agents, not foundation years).

    2. we’re not a regulator, but we can and should act when it is in the collective interests of the sector to ensure that trust and confidence in the system can be maintained. That has to be the flip side of arguing for a regulator who will treat the sector with respect, and take a light tough where possible.

    3. It is wholly usual for representative bodies of many sectors to instigate reviews of practice within their membership in order to protect the overall reputation of the sector they represent. Some will do so with more or less rigour, speed, and robust news – but the idea of a rep body such as uuk doing such a think is entirely normal and to be commended.

Leave a Reply