Education: The Recruitment Scandal: `Dash for cash', or trade tactic?

Universities deny dropping entry standards to woo high-paying overseas students who bring billions into the British economy. Lucy Hodges reports
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The Independent Online
Accusations that British universities are lowering their standards by taking poorly qualified overseas students, are rejected by universities named in Robert Walls' article (see pages 2 & 3, and below).

However, overseas students inject huge amounts of money into the UK's cash-starved university system - and bring a welcome boost to the economy. They contributed a total of pounds 600m in tuition fees in 1995-96 and spent an extra pounds 750m on everything from Scotch eggs to haircuts.

That is why British universities are so keen to recruit students from countries outside the European Union. They can charge overseas students what they like. Fees vary from pounds 6,000 a year for an undergraduate arts course to pounds 17,000 a year for a medical degree. By contrast, universities are not allowed to charge more than the flat-rate pounds 1,025 tuition fee to home and European Union students.

Earlier this year, Tony Blair launched a campaign to increase the number of overseas students. A key argument was that they bring international influence. The Prime Minister said that by recruiting more students from outside the EU, Britain will increase the number of educated foreigners who understand this country and want to do business with it once they return home.

Mr Blair wants to see 50,000 more overseas students in higher education by 2005. The target for further education was an extra 25,000. Today there are some 200,000 overseas students in the UK, including 90,000 from the EU. If universities meet the targets, it will boost overall numbers significantly.

Four universities, named by Robert Walls, rebutted his claim that they had offered places to one Taiwanese student who was ill prepared for their courses. Salford University said the student, who had done just two years at a junior college, would have earned a master's degree. She had spent a year studying English in Canada and worked for four years. Students without traditional qualifications, but with relevant working experience, are encouraged at Salford. The management school had offered her a place on its international business MSc, providing she satisfied the entry criteria and attend English language courses.

Sheffield Hallam said it offered the same student an unconditional place as she met or exceeded its entry requirements. She wasn't a graduate, but had work experience and a good reference. "She had studied English and had registered to take a two-year introductory course at the university," said a spokesman. "We absolutely deny we made an offer to her because she was an overseas student. It is very important to our business school to be scrupulous about our entry requirements."

Bournemouth University said it had accepted her for a masters course in international business administration and she would be starting in the new year. "She was accepted for this vocational programme based on her previous academic qualifications, combined with her relevant experience and English language skills," said Stewart Dickinson, the head of postgraduate programmes at the university's business school.

The University of North London said it had made the student a conditional offer which depended on her succeeding in a foundation course first. Manchester and Birmingham universities also rejected the suggestion that standards were in decline. "We have 18 Japanese postgraduates," said Frank Albrighton, the director of external relations at Birmingham. "Every one of them was selected on the basis of our normal entry criteria for postgraduates. They must have a 2:1 degree and meet other criteria."

Alan Ferns, of Manchester, said: "The most common complaint we get from Japanese students is that our standards are too high, particularly for English language."