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Russell Group admissions scandal

Explained: This is what the Russell Group admissions scandal is actually about

A Times investigation found international students are being accepted onto A* requirement courses with D grades


An investigation by The Sunday Times this weekend found that Russell Group universities have been recruiting international students with lower grades for more money.

Courses that require UK students to have A and A* grades to get into have been made available to international students with Ds.

This has been found to be happening at 15 Russell Group universities: Leeds, Exeter, Newcastle, Cardiff, Sheffield, Nottingham, York, Durham, Bristol, Warwick, Birmingham, Liverpool, Southampton, Queen Mary University of London and Queen’s Belfast.

A recruitment officer for international students who works at Amber Education, a firm used by Nottingham, York, Exeter and Durham said: “If you can take the lift, why go through the hardest route.”

“International students pay more money and the universities will receive almost double, so they give leeway for international students.”

He claimed universities do not publicise the schemes in the UK because UK students “would not accept it. It’s not something they want to tell you, but it’s the truth.”

But what does all this actually mean and what is the Russell Group admissions scandal about?

Well, UK student fees are capped at £9,250 whilst international fees can be as high as £38,000 a year, this means that Russell Group unis are keen to increase their intake of international students.

They are doing this by employing middleman companies for a lot of money, to recruit more international students on lower grades for foundation courses. These agents then take around 20 per cent of the fees paid by the students.

Undercover reporters at The University of Exeter who pretended to be prospective parents of international students were told: “He’s ticked everything we need for academic entry so CCD at A Level is perfect.”

At Manchester, they were told: “For your son to get onto this course it would be two Ds at A Level.” Students then apply through the agents rather than UCAS directly.

A representative for Study Group, the company used by Durham University said: “If they didn’t really do well in their study but they still want to study in good universities, we give the student a second chance. Some of the families, they’d rather prefer to spend some money to have a better chance to go into the good degree.”

A representative for Study Group, the company used by Durham University said: “If they didn’t really do well in their study but they still want to study in good universities, we give the student a second chance. Some of the families, they’d rather prefer to spend some money to have a better chance to go into the good degree.”

This is genuinely insulting to home students https://t.co/CmXmxRsxtM

— 𝔰𝔞𝔯𝔦𝔰𝔥𝔞 🕊️🩶 (@carbdiem) January 27, 2024

Below is The Times’ table comparing entry requirements for an economics course at several Russell Group unis. However, the courses that international students are accepted onto are foundation courses and are different from the regular uni courses.

Russell Group admissions scandal

Via The Sunday Times

There are two types of foundation courses available to international students. The first is a four-year course for those aged 16 or 17 where they complete the foundation year and then go onto the first year of the normal degree.

However the second is only a three-year course, for those with C and D A Level grades who complete the foundation year and then go straight onto the second year of the course.

A recruitment official for seven Russell Group uni told The Times the foundation courses were “70 to 80 per cent easier to pass than the normal first year of a degree.”

But UK unis rely heavily on fees from international students to survive. Rob Ford, a politics professor at The University of Manchester said on Twitter: “Firstly, as many are pointing out, foundation courses are not same thing as standard courses. This is not an apples-for-apples comparrison. Secondly, if anyone imagines cutting overseas student intakes would free up spaces for UK students, they don’t understand uni finances at all.”

Foundation year courses are also made available to certain eligible UK students too, however. Universities like Durham, Sheffield and Exeter all offer foundation year programmes for students from low socio-economic backgrounds for example. This isn’t something just limited to international students.

So whilst yes international students are being accepted onto courses for lower grades due to higher tuition fees, the courses are not regular courses but foundation courses aimed to prepare them for the degree.

In a joint statement, the Russell Group said: “International students are an important part of our student body, bringing diverse perspectives that enrich the learning environment. Revenue from international students is reinvested into high-quality teaching and learning to benefit all students.”

It added: “Given the variety of starting points, foundation programmes have long proved a useful pathway to bridge the gap between different education systems.” It said several universities provided similar pathways for UK students with “under-represented backgrounds”.

The Department of Education said it is “urgently investigating reports that Russell Group universities are asking UK students to meet higher entry standards than international applicants.” Robert Halfron, the universities minister held talks with university leaders on Sunday to discuss the scandal.

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