Lord Willetts is President of the Resolution Foundation. He is a former Minister for Universities and Science, and his book A University Education is published by Oxford University Press.
The Sunday Times splashed this weekend with a story that has opened up yet again changing attitudes in the media and indeed amongst politicians to our universities. It was headlined: “Exposed: foreign students get secret route to top universities.” It had some shocking remarks to the paper’s undercover reporter from agents recruiting students for British universities. In particular, they made comments about how they could get places for overseas students with low grades – much lower than home students were expected to achieve.
They seem to have been referring to foundation courses which universities operate as a route into university for people without the usual A levels. These courses are often used by our own mature students. Somebody might have dropped out of school at 16 for any manner of reasons from ill health to sheer teenage rage at any more time studying. Then, years later, they may have found their way in the world, and come to see how a degree could help them.
Universities run one year courses to help such people prepare for academic study. These students are usually over 21, but need not be: one Oxford college, Lady Margaret Hall, developed a foundation year programme for potential students with poor A levels, and the university has now picked it up and runs its Astrophoria Foundation Year. One of the trickiest issues in designing such courses is how to encourage students to apply without offering a 100 per cent guarantee of a full undergraduate place afterwards.
These programmes are also very relevant for some overseas students. They may not have done A levels or anything like it at their home country. They may also need to improve their English to get up to the required standard. By and large, British students welcome the opportunity of studying alongside foreign students as it broadens their knowledge of the world: their main complaint is if those students don’t have good enough English to contribute and instead hold everything up. Achieving the necessary standards of English is and must be a real entry condition.
There never has been a tidy world therefore in which the only route into university is by achieving set A level grades at age 18. It is right to have these other routes – but they must not be abused, and universities need properly to assess, at the end of the foundation course, if the student concerned is now sufficiently prepared to move on to a full degree course.
However, the Sunday Times investigation suggests these routes are being abused. There are already attempts to set standards for agents helping universities recruit around the world. Universities should take a lead in committing to these standards, and ending contracts with agents that clearly fail to meet them.
An allegation which follows is that these places for Foundation Year students come at the expense of students on the classic route. But the evidence is that most of the universities identified in the Sunday Times had also been growing their numbers of UK students over the past few years.
This gets to the heart of the debate about the size of our universities. I’m often told that too many people go to university, and actual universities report continuing increases in applicants both at home and from abroad. There was a particular surge during Covid and that has reversed a bit, but the underlying trend is still up.
Our shift from the public funding of universities to graduate funding has meant that the Treasury is no longer trying to control public spending by controlling student numbers – so Whitehall no longer fixes the number of places at each university. That reform boosted student choice and opportunities, and means that now more students are getting places at their first choice of university. These growing universities attracting students from around the world are anchor institutions leading the revival of many of our cities from Winchester to Lincoln to Chester.
There is a problem, however. Universities face stronger incentives than before to throw aside all the necessary academic restraints and increase the number of overseas students regardless of standards. That is because the £9,250 maximum tuition fee for domestic students isn’t enough to cover the cost of their education.
So universities need overseas students to cross-subsidise the domestic ones. The best way to solve this problem would be properly to fund domestic higher education funding, which would means linking fees to inflation or some other such formula.
Students don’t pay the tuition fees upfront. The debt is not like commercial debt. It is not used by mortgage lenders to reduce the amount a young graduate can take out as a mortgage. Instead, it is a fixed outgoing at nine per cent above a higher threshold – so a graduate earning £40,000 might be paying back at the rate of £100-£150 a month. The longer we delay the necessary fee adjustments, the messier the situation is going to become for our universities – and the more we will see stories like last weekend’s in the Sunday Times.