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Exeter named as one of 15 Russell Group unis lowering grade boundaries for overseas students

Overseas students can access pathways into Exeter with grades as low as DDE


The University of Exeter has been exposed as one of 15 Russell Group universities lowering grade boundaries for overseas students.

Offering one year pathway courses, the university enables students from overseas to access undergraduate degrees despite significantly lower academic performances than would be required for students in the UK, The Times reports.

Across the country, overseas students, holding only a handful of B and C grades at GCSE, can secure highly competitive degree courses on the condition that their other hand is offering up a decent-sized wad of cash – or £20,000 a year here at Exeter for a foundation course.

These revelations surfaced following an undercover investigation conducted by The Sunday Times. During which, two INTO employees on University of Exeter campus reportedly encouraged overseas students with lower grades to enrol at the university’s business school through consultation with INTO regarding two “backdoor” pathways, a term coined by The Times.

Ranked 11th in the country by The Sunday Times Good University Guide, places at the University of Exeter are competitive, with the institution receiving 40,000 applications for just 6,000 undergraduate places.

As with other institutes across the country, the University of Exeter offers two methods which have been branded as “backdoor” pathways by The Times. The first is INTO’s International Year One programme for those aged 18 and above, and the second is International Foundation, a year long foundation course for those aged 16 and above. It’s reported that the university admits close to 250 international students annually through through these pathways.

Neither of the two pathways are available to British students and those on the pathways must pass exams at the end of the year before joining the undergraduate degrees. However, universities’ recruitment officials have admitted to The Sunday Times that the exams were so easy that passing was a formality.

UK students applying for an economics degree at University of Exeter are required to achieve A-level grades AAA, whilst overseas students aged 18 or above have the option to pursue a foundation course with only achieving grades of DDE. They can then advance straight into second year.

The university also offers a foundation course for those aged 16 and above with five C or B grades at GCSE. Upon completion of this course, students advance into the first year of an undergraduate Economics degree at the age of 17.

The university also offers a foundation course for those aged 16 and above with five C or B grades at GCSE. Upon completion of this course, students advance into the first year of an undergraduate Economics degree at the age of 17.

INTO functions as a student recruitment business, assisting thousands of international students each year in realising their dream of studying in the UK, US, and Australia. In 2022, the company reportedly generated £64 million from its student recruitment activities in the UK. Typically, student recruitment agents such as INTO receive about 20 percent of the fees paid by first year students. Clearly, enabling a pay-your-way into university is a smart move.

Exeter University issued a statement a week prior to the release of the investigation’s results, declaring that all its applicants “whether from the UK or abroad, are considered on merit and equally when they apply to study.” However, how did students at Exeter respond to the news?

Lucy*, a British third year economics student told The Exeter Tab: “It annoys me that others were able to pay their way onto my course, as I wore myself out revising and studying through both GCSEs and A-Levels. I see how there might be a concern my degree could be seen as less respected maybe, but then again, it’s about what you achieve while you’re here, not what grades you achieved before. I mean, COVID landed me my A-Level grades, so.”

Meanwhile, Josh*, an overseas student studying business here at Exeter said: “I didn’t use the INTO programmes to get onto the course, however I feel as if there could be a lens on all overseas students now, as if we’re paying our way into the university and not working for it.”

He continues to ask: “Is it the worst thing? The university benefits, overseas students are brought up to speed, foreign students pay way more anyway – give us a break.”

The Exeter Tab reached out to the university for comment. A spokesperson for the University of Exeter said: “All applicants for the University of Exeter, whether from the UK or abroad, are considered on merit and equally when they apply to study, and the article in The Sunday Times suggesting otherwise is inaccurate. It misleadingly conflates entry requirements for international foundation pathways with a direct degree entry.”

They added: “Foundation pathways have entirely separate admissions processes and entry requirements to degree entry. Entry requirements for foundation pathway programmes are set by INTO whilst the requirements for entry into University of Exeter programmes are set by the university, and are rigorous, transparent and applicable to all students. All offers are competitively set to attract the very best students from across the world, including any contextual or clearing offers that may arise through the recruitment cycle.”

The spokesperson for the uni continued: “The University of Exeter provides support to help students from all backgrounds to succeed in their study. The long-standing partnership with INTO provides academic pathways for international students, that are designed to develop academic skills of students whose home countries may provide 12 years of education, rather than 13 as in the UK, and may not be equivalent to A-level standard. This is similar to UK students passing foundation programmes or Access courses to progress to undergraduate or postgraduate study. In recent years, the number of UK undergraduates has grown faster than international intakes.”

In a joint statement, the Russell Group universities told The Times: “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.”

“Given the variety of starting points, foundation programmes have long proved a useful pathway to bridge the gap between different education systems.”

The statement also said several universities provided similar pathways for UK students with “under-represented backgrounds”.

With regards to recruitment agent practices, a Russell Group spokesperson said: “The behaviour of the agents highlighted in media reports clearly falls short of the high standards our universities expect and require, and consequently a number of agent contracts have been reviewed and terminated. International students and their families have the right to expect professionalism and honesty when working with agents so they can take decisions about their education that are right for them, with information that is accurate and consistent with university admissions policies.

They continued that: “Not every Russell Group university uses recruitment agents, but all Russell Group universities who do use recruitment agents are now pledged to the UK Agent Quality Framework (AQF). The Russell Group itself also endorses the use of the AQF and we will continue to work closely with DfE, the Home Office and others within government as the investigation which has been announced gets underway.”

*Names have been changed for anonymity.