The Sunday Times on international foundation years

What are the facts behind this morning's splash?

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Hold the front page, people.

A certain group of students are able to gain guaranteed access to competitive courses at Russell Group universities with just one grade 4 GCSE.

Though traditional 18 year old UK students will only get an offer with at the very least three A levels at grade A, others in their lecture theatre may have no formal level three qualifications at all. This isn’t a “secret route”, there’s no agents or arcana required, it’s all right there on the university website and on UCAS.

Is this another blow to the ambitious children of middle class parents? Is this evidence of dumbing-down at some of our most famous universities? And is it all down to universities looking to make as much money as possible?

The answer is, inevitably, no. I’m talking about provision like the University of Sheffield’s fabulous foundation year programme offered via the Department of Lifelong Learning. Here, students over the age of 21 who show the potential to succeed can take a year-long course to prepare them for any number of popular courses – BA Politics and Philosophy, BA History, LLB Law, BSc Psychology. The entry requirements make it clear that you can’t get here straight from A levels, and that you should be able to present evidence that you have the capacity to benefit from the foundation year and progress to the degree proper. You do need evidence of English language proficiency (usually GCSE grade 4 or equivalent) – in some cases you also need the equivalent of a 3 at GCSE mathematics, and/or a 4 in a sciences GCSE.

There are, as you might expect, alternative qualifications to all of these (including IELTS for those joining from overseas). And although the course is usually aimed at over 21s, you can access it at a younger age if you’ve not been in recent full time education and where there are individual extenuating circumstances that mean you are not able to proceed.

There are other examples of programmes like this – the one at Durham is aimed not just at those over 21, but at other disadvantaged groups, and there’s even fee scholarships for disadvantaged young people in the North East. A similar scheme is available to disadvantaged students for some courses at Exeter.

Now, at the top there you were probably expecting me to be talking about international foundation years (like this one at Exeter, this one at Durham, this one at Sheffield). Though there’s more money involved the principles are similar – effectively students pay to do their level 3 at university rather than elsewhere. A foundation year offers not only the chance to top up qualifications but to settle into university life – invaluable if you are new to that kind of learning experience.

There are other, cheaper options available, both internationally and in the UK (I’m a fan of the Access to HE qualification available from many FE colleges, for example). But as regards acclimatisation to higher education, and a chance to leave what may be an unpromising home situation to study at one of the world’s best universities, foundation years are pretty awesome.

So what’s upset The Sunday Times insight team this morning?

It’s the old canard about UK undergraduates being frozen out of selective universities with places taken by international undergraduate students. Universities (who generally make a loss in educating home undergraduate students because fee income has been frozen since 2017) are dreadful market capitalists for admitting students who not only pay their way but subsidise the home undergraduate offer.

Now, this may not be the kind of thing that makes you drop your marmalade knife over the morning paper, but this story is not correct and there is data to back it up.

Sheffield, for instance, is down 30 international student admissions over last year (it’s up 330 over 2019, which is briefly interesting until you realise that the English undergraduate intake is up by 930 over the same period. Exeter is down 35 international UG students on last year, and up 100 on 2019 (English UG students are up 825 since 2019). Durham is down 200 international UG students this year, though it is up 150 on 2019 (English recruitment fell by just 35 over the same period – not bad for a university in the North East).

Here’s a chart to let you look at changes in recruitment by domicile for every university (you can compare to last year – 2022 – or the last non-Covid year – 2019 – and filter by gender, age, and whether or not they came in via the main UCAS route):

[Full screen] (and if you like charts about 2023 cycle recruitment I did a whole bunch last week)

Are these mysterious “back door” international students included in this analysis? Yes they are – UCAS records all entries to undergraduate courses, though without waking the UCAS press team up at the weekend I’m not sure whether the “international foundation” cohort will be shown on entry to the foundation year, or the actual degree. Either way, given that these things have been running for a while I can’t see that these are making much difference.

A lot of students pass these foundation years – they take them seriously and work hard – and then enter the exact same course as everyone else. There’s not much data on how they do afterwards – DfE did release a little bit last year for reasons I’ll get to, and given the sample sizes involved I’d say differences in performance (foundation year as a whole versus direct entry as a whole) were teetering on the border of significance – and given that UK foundation year students are more likely to be mature, disadvantaged, disabled, and all kind of other factors we know affect performance that’s where you expect it to be. We don’t get data on domicile from DfE, in case you were wondering.

There’s no secrecy to these offers – the course pages are clear as day on university websites almost as if they had nothing to be ashamed of. Which they haven’t.

I don’t want to let providers off entirely scot-free from The Sunday Times investigation – the use of international agents by UK universities has sailed too close to scandal for comfort on a number of occasions – and there is now an Agent Quality Framework jointly led by Universities UK International, the British Council, the UK Council for International Student Affairs, and the British Universities’ International Liaison Association that aims to put the whole operation (including agent compensation, which is usually on a per student basis based on a proportion of the first year of fees) on a sound footing. The National Code of Ethical Practice in particular is worth a read.

And, barring a little handwringing about international student fees being so much higher than home fees (though oddly little about increasing university income for home students to match costs – if you are genuinely alarmed by this story please do write to your MP and ask them to fund universities properly…) that’s what you need to get on the front page of The Sunday Times these days.

If you’re inclined to think, as I am, that foundation years with lower entry requirements may be a good thing – bear in mind that changes to the fee system from 2025-26 means (for subjects like politics, history, economics and law) offering these courses to home students will become financially unviable. In those cases, this really will become an entry route available only to international students that can pay for it. And that would be a shame.

One response to “The Sunday Times on international foundation years

  1. One thing I’d like to add to your commentary; please can we also have a look at what these international students bring to the community – diversity, money (spent almost entirely locally, funding local hospitality and leisure), and workforce (many get jobs in retail, for example, that nobody else seems to want). I can’t believe we’re all doom&gloom and going ballistic over this. We’ve already gotten rid of foreign seasonal workers, NHS staff, builders….now students are a problem too?

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