Education: The Recruitment Scandal: UK universities are `exploiting' foreign students

In the dash for cash, universities are admitting students who can't understand enough English to follow their courses - or write as well as the average UK 10-year-old.
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The Independent Online
Until recently, Britain had two golden commodities when it came to selling education: the English language, and a reputation for honesty. Virtually every ambitious person in the world wants to master the international world language, while many other education systems lack a reputation for completely honest dealing.

When I started travelling to student recruitment events in Asia, I was delighted by the respect that was voiced by people who could afford to send their children to any university in the world. "Your fees are very high but everyone knows that you cannot buy your way through a British university. Once you have a British degree you have a qualification that is respected everywhere," was the sort of comment I was hearing.

It was about eight years ago when I first had cause to doubt that there was universal honesty in British higher education. I was at a British Council education exhibition in Tokyo, and I was approached by a series of young women who were interested in studying for a master's degree in English literature.

These were perfectly capable students who had undergraduate degrees in English literature from respectable Japanese universities, but they had studied Shakespeare, Dickens, Hardy and so on, in Japanese translation. They lacked only one quality that might allow them to be successful in a British university - their command of the English language was such that we were unable to conduct a basic conversation, and I had to use an interpreter to convey the message that they would need to study the language for at least a year and more likely two, before they would have any hope of being admitted to a master's in the UK.

One of my colleagues from a college of higher education appeared. Our conversation went something like this.

"Are you turning these girls down, Robert?"

"They don't speak or understand any English."

"We don't care about that. We are desperate for the money. Send them to me. I'll sign them up right away."

I digested this for a while and then went to speak to him.

"I don't think this is fair. You are going to let them come to the UK, and accept a large sum of money, knowing that they have no hope of getting a master's."

"Don't worry. They will get a master's OK. The kind of master's we do is not the sort you offer at London University. We will teach them some English; they can struggle through a little Shakespeare or Dickens, and get a master's at the end. We get the money; they get a year in England, improve their language and get a qualification; and everybody is happy."

"But how can they write a half-decent thesis?"

"Well, of course, they write something that is absolute rubbish and then I `improve' it for them. That is all part of the deal."

I was not too concerned to discover that that there was a part of the British higher education system where standards were less than rigorous. Every university system in the world has a pecking order. This conversation taught me that at the bottom of our system, standards were a great deal lower than those of the traditional universities. I reasoned that in Japan, that most hierarchical of countries, students would understand that they were entering one of the weakest parts of the British system.

Over the next few years it became obvious to everyone on the student recruitment circuit that the dash for cash was resulting in a plummeting of standards of honesty in the behaviour of more and more universities. Representatives of the recently upgraded polytechnics vied with each other in telling anecdotes about the recruitment practices of their rivals. Universities that offered entry to the second year of degree courses to applicants with little more than a GCSE were bitterly critical of rivals who offered entry to the final year. There were stories of a university that admitted a student who had failed GCSE maths three times to the final year of a degree in engineering; of students with three Fs in A- level being awarded scholarships; of teachers being offered pounds 500 for each student they supplied to certain universities. I believe all of these stories, but it is difficult to obtain evidence, for universities have a tendency not to boast of such practices and students who are given an easy route to a degree are unlikely to complain.

However, my position as someone who attended British education exhibitions on a regular basis and who received applications from students who also applied elsewhere or who had studied already in the UK, allowed me to build up an accurate picture of what was going on in what a British Council advertising slogan describes as "A Quality Education".

At an event in Kuala Lumpur I was approached by a man who had done badly in STM, the local equivalent of GCSE, and had then completed a one-year course at a private computing school. These qualifications were well short of A-level but he was able to show me letters offering entry to the final year at three of the new universities.

The degradation of standards is seen most clearly in the area of English- language requirements. There are a number of tests that judge the degree of mastery of the English language that has been achieved by a non-native speaker. In my opinion, the most reliable of these is the one set by the International English Language Testing Service (IELTS), and the British Council issues guidelines on the scores likely to be required for students to study successfully in an institution where the teaching is in English. For what it describes as "linguistically demanding academic courses" such as law and journalism, it suggests that a score of 7.5 is "acceptable" and 7.0 is "probably acceptable". My experience suggests that this is about right but, unfortunately, of the many thousands of students I have met at British Council exhibitions, probably less than 200 had 7.0 or better, the vast majority having scores between 4.5 and 6.5. Experience also tells me that most students need a year of intensive study to improve by one point, but very few indeed are prepared to spend a year or two in improving their language.

Luckily for them, most British universities are happy to make unconditional offers to applicants with scores as low as 4.5, although such students cannot understand anything said to them or write the most simple of sentences in grammatical English. At a conservative estimate, there are several thousand such students arriving in the UK each year.

After they start their courses there seem to be two main techniques for dealing with them. The most popular, which almost seems to be standard practice in the "new" universities, is to allow them to write nonsense but still let them pass.

One lecturer I met said that after giving one of her students a mark of 12 per cent in the first-year examination, she was summoned to see the head of department who told her that the student must pass.

"But he can't possibly pass. He cannot write an English sentence. Even 12 per cent was rather generous."

"Let me put it this way. Your contract is due for renewal. I need all of the overseas fee-payers to pass in order to have the money to renew your contract."

The student passed.

The other technique, more popular in "old" universities, is to find that the student's English is not good enough after all and that he or she will need to do an extra year. This has the advantage of allowing the university to get twice the fee before the student obtains the qualification.

I can best illustrate this method with the example of a student from Taiwan. At the Taipei British education exhibition three years ago, I met a young woman we shall call Agnes, who was interested in doing a master's degree in business administration (MBA). Agnes had an IELTS score of 6.0, a little below our requirement of 6.5, but she was determined that she was going to Royal Holloway. I agreed to recommend that she should be admitted to our bridging diploma, which would allow her to improve her English before entering the MBA a year later, but Agnes was determined to enter direct. Over the following months, she regularly e-mailed us and visited the campus to try to persuade us to agree to her entry. Finally, she admitted defeat and, much to my relief, communication stopped.

Almost a year later Agnes appeared in my office and explained what had happened after she had entered the MBA course at an "old" UK university.

"Of course, you were right. I could not understand the teachers and, after two weeks, they tell me to go down to the diploma course. My tutor tells me that the teachers do not want students like me but they are forced to accept me by the bosses of the university and there is no chance I will pass the MBA but a good chance I will pass the diploma and then be able to go to the MBA.

"I am very angry but I know I have to do it. Even so, in one class all of the students except me are Greek and the teacher is Greek and he and they try to make me leave the class, so then he can teach in Greek, for their English is worse than mine. But I am very stubborn and I stay in the class and they all hate me and every night I cry."

At least Agnes was a graduate of a good university in Taiwan, whose only weakness was her command of English. There are many other students being admitted to "postgraduate" courses who are much poorer at English and who have not graduated from university. Within the last year I have received applications for the Royal Holloway MBA from students who even I could not believe had any hope of admission to a British university. One man had failed the first year of an undergraduate degree at Goldsmiths College. He then completed one semester at one of the worst of the American universities. When I pointed out to his education agent that it is necessary to be a graduate in order to be considered for a "postgraduate" course, he replied that most British universities have no interest in anything other than the ability to pay the fee.

Many excellent students come from Taiwan to the UK for postgraduate study. Provided their English is good, students who have done well at one of the national universities will be better than the vast majority of British students, but British universities are searching in the darkest recesses of the Taiwanese system to recruit "postgraduates". About 55 per cent of senior high-school graduates in Taiwan go to university and usually only those who are unable to gain entry go to something called a junior college.

Last year, we had an applicant from a two-year junior college which, in my view, at best is the equivalent of one-year post-A-level, who applied for the Royal Holloway MBA. When I pointed that she needed to be a graduate in order to be considered for a postgraduate course, she showed me offer letters from four British universities.

Recently, I asked the graduate study adviser at a leading Japanese university which British universities still retained what might be described as serious entry requirements.

"That is an easy question. Oxford, Cambridge and the London School of Economics. It is very sad that universities such as Birmingham and Manchester now accept students who would have no hope of getting into the best universities in the US. It is harder and harder for me to advise my students who are not quite good enough for Oxbridge to go to the UK."

I am a believer in the internationalisation of higher education. Many of the best students in the British universities are not from the UK and more than one academic has told me that, if he had a choice, all of his students would be from the Chinese cultures, especially Singapore. Such students tend to see university as a place to study rather than party. They have been through a system of secondary education where exams have not been made steadily easier over the years in order to allow more people to pass. Almost always, they believe that anything less than an upper second will be a cause of great shame.

I have enormous admiration for people who, at the age of 18 or 21, leave their family, friends and culture to seek education and adventure many thousands of miles from their homes. Imagine leaving school in the UK to go to Japan to pursue a degree course in economics taught in Japanese. One Japanese student I know is studying for a degree in Italian at the University of London. Her reason for this is that she can continue to improve her English while learning another European language. Think of yourself going to university in Korea in order to take a degree in Chinese taught through the medium of Korean!

What saddens me, what makes me angry, is that so many of the students admitted to the British universities are quite unsuited to benefiting from the experience but are merely having an expensive and unsatisfying holiday, the only real purpose of which is to keep afloat a university system that is badly managed and which successive governments have refused to fund adequately while, for political reasons, encouraging ambitious vice-chancellors to reduce standards so that people who can barely read and write (I am talking about British students now) can obtain university degrees.

There are too many people gaining from the system for change to be welcomed, from heads of universities earning pounds 100,000-plus a year, to parents who are delighted that their children, who seemed to be slow at school, have managed to graduate. The entire system has become dependent on exploiting foreign students, with some universities gaining more than 50 per cent of their total fee income from them.

Vice-chancellors may be tempted to dismiss me as an elitist old fogey. But I have a challenge for them and for a Government that recently announced a desire to increase the number of overseas students in the UK by 75,000. Allow me to choose two universities, one old and one new, from about the middle of one of the league tables. At the end of the next term I will ask the MBA students in those universities who are not native speakers of English to write a short essay, under exam conditions, on a topic such as "My Best Holiday". At the same time, I will choose two British junior schools and all of the 10-year-olds in those schools will be set the same topic. The essays will be marked for content and language by a group chaired by Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools. If the average score of the 10-year-olds is not higher than that of the postgraduates, I will pay pounds 5,000 to a charity chosen by the chair of the vice-chancellors' committee. I am confident that my money is safe.

The writer has advised students on university entrance since 1974. He has been schools liaison officer at Aston University and Royal Holloway, London University. For the last 10 years he has been involved in recruiting overseas students. He was head of schools and international liaison at Royal Holloway and took early retirement last year