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Russell Group Universities: Foreign Student Admissions

Volume 835: debated on Thursday 1 February 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government, following reporting by The Sunday Times on 28 January, what assessment they have made of admission policies for foreign students at Russell Group Universities.

My Lords, I was concerned to see the allegations of bad practice by recruitment agents and unfairness towards British students. The Department for Education has launched an urgent investigation into university admission practices, including the behaviours of agents involved in recruiting international students. We will take action to ensure fairness between domestic and international students. Every student should be able to benefit from a world-class education.

My Lords, I am speaking in a personal capacity, but I also serve as chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which is responsible for compliance with the public sector equality duty. This seeks to prevent discrimination and to ensure equality of opportunity. The Sunday Times investigation has revealed that as many as 15 of our 24 top universities are accepting through the back door foreign students at lower grades than those applied to UK students for the same courses. In effect, they are accepting cash for access. This is unfair at best, and discriminatory at worst, as UK students do not have those choices. I am extremely relieved to hear the noble Baroness’s response about ordering an urgent investigation. Can she give the House a timeline and say what measures they might take to penalise the institutions that are creating this lack of a level playing field for domestic students?

The noble Baroness makes important points. To be clear, our work will focus particularly on the unscrupulous behaviour of recruitment agents, and whether it is genuinely easier for international students than for domestic students to get places on undergraduate courses. However, there is no evidence that international students are displacing domestic students in England, where UK students make up 85% of the total population. We will be working on this as a matter of urgency, but I do not have as yet a definite timeline to give the noble Baroness.

My Lords, as someone who benefited from free higher education in France, and in gratitude has remained a lifetime Francophile, I argue that the best way to develop sympathetic international relationships is to invest not by bringing the rich, unqualified undeserving into the United Kingdom just for the money, but bringing instead the brightest and the best from problematic parts of the world, even at our expense? Is that not one of the best investments we can make in developing international understanding?

Developing international understanding is important, but I imagine that universities would argue that there are a number of other potentially greater priorities in terms of the quality of the education they provide. We are very proud of our track record in terms of international students. Everyone, including the Government and universities, need to have a shared interest in upholding the quality of and confidence in the system.

My Lords, I declare an interest in that I am still paying a student loan with an interest rate of 7.6%. I ask my noble friend the Minister: what are the Government doing to ensure that the contact hours offered by university courses represent value for money for all students enrolling on them?

The universities are obliged to provide information about contact hours to students before they go on a course, and there are websites that are UK-wide, such as Discover Uni, where potential students can compare, for example, contact hours and other metrics across courses. The OfS obviously regulates the quality of courses and, although it does not look specifically at contact hours, it does look at continuation rates from one year to the next, completion rates and progression to graduate jobs.

My Lords, the Government have got themselves into a situation where universities are just very short of cash. When are we going to put enough money into the system so they are only taking foreign students because they are of the right quality, and not because it keeps the universities afloat?

I remind the House of the figures on university income. Over the last five years, it has grown by 24%, from £32.9 billion to £40.8 billion, and over that time UK fees have grown by 19%. The latest data on the staff headcount in universities, which was published very recently, showed another increase year on year, which does not look to me like a sector that is in trouble across the board.

My Lords, I am pleased to hear that the Government are taking seriously the Sunday Times allegations, but the truth is that even within the UK there is not a level playing field for admissions to university, with many young people from disadvantaged backgrounds still missing out. In a report from October 2023, the Sutton Trust said:

“Widening participation efforts appear to have been a case of ‘running to stand still’, and where those efforts have not been present, inequalities have worsened”.

What further action will the Government take to address this issue?

The Government share the noble Baroness’s commitment to making sure that disadvantaged students can access higher education. As the noble Baroness and the House know, our perspective is that there are opportunities at different levels of jobs, such as levels 4, 5 and 6—namely, undergraduate level. We have also put an enormous emphasis on degree apprenticeships so that loans should not be a barrier to access and, as the House knows, we will be introducing the lifelong loan entitlement, which will also unlock potential from those who do not currently access higher education.

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, I benefited from a free education and a grant at St Andrews University. Today I would not have a hope of getting into St Andrews University because, while they are free of tuition fees, there is insufficient funding. The result is that children from disadvantaged backgrounds cannot get a place at Scottish universities. The universities have responded to the lack of income from fees by bringing in lots of international students. This is a disgrace, and if the situation in England is bad, north of the border—under the SNP—it is extremely worse.

I have to agree with my noble friend. The figures are very different in Scotland. I mentioned that 85% of undergraduates in England are UK students. In Scotland, that figure is only 66% and has declined from 73% over the last five years.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the proud father of a daughter who has obtained places at university from this September. Can I ask the Minister to focus, in the department’s investigation of this matter, on the stress imposed on students—and, of course, their parents? It is a very stressful process, and it adds immeasurably to the stress if students cannot be confident that universities are applying a fair and transparent procedure.

Absolutely. We focus on that and a sense of confidence in the fairness of the system is vital. However, I would underline universities are autonomous institutions, and we would encourage them to take the initiative to address the noble Lord’s concerns.

My Lords, I fear the problem is that we have lost sight of what universities are for. Does the Minister agree that it is a con when new university degrees are created as a substitute for high-quality skills training—the latest being estate agents’ degrees—while academic study is suffering? For example, there is the tragic closure of the music department at Oxford Brookes. Is not this university growth propelled by credentialing schemes, leading to the exploitation of overseas students who are effectively buying visas/degrees to pay for this ridiculous, non-academic growth?

I think the noble Baroness brings together a number of different issues. However, the essence is: do we need high-quality degrees in this country that are accessible, particularly to those from disadvantaged backgrounds? There are areas where we have clear concerns. We have already expressed our concerns publicly about foundation years and have reduced the funding for classroom-based subjects, as well as regarding franchise provision.