Why I fear lowering entry criteria for foreign
students could destroy universities
When students become customers and universities are transformed
into businesses, few of the traditions associated with the ideals
of academia remain untouched. The invisible hand of the market has
a unique capacity for altering the purpose and orientation of institutions
and their practices.
The recruitment of undergraduates has not remained immune to the
incessant prodding of this not-so-invisible hand. Increasingly,
it is evident that universities are no longer interested simply
in getting more bums on seats - they are particularly keen on high
fee-paying overseas students. Gaining a share of the global market
for international students has become an important objective for
universities. There is little money to be made educating British
undergraduates; but overseas students, who pay between £6,000
and Pounds 10,000 a year, provide a tidy profit. That is why universities
that want to secure their long-term viability need to have access
to this lucrative income stream.
Of course, an increase in the number of overseas students can have
a positive influence on campus life. Universities tend to benefit
from a robust international student culture. Overseas students help
expose the university to fascinating experiences and play a valuable
role in building a vibrant academic community. Unfortunately, recruitment
campaigns targeting them have little to do with the project of encouraging
the internationalisation of academic life. Their sole objective
is to improve the financial position of their institution.
There is disturbing evidence that many university admissions policies
have been altered de facto to recruit the maximum number of overseas
Last week, The Sunday Times published an expose of the double standard
that admissions officers apply in selecting undergraduates for popular
In a variety of institutions, the requirement expected of overseas
applicants appears to be negotiable. The Sunday Times found that
the same admissions tutors tended to demand lower entry requirements
from overseas students than home applicants.
Two reporters pretended to be a home and an overseas student -
both with the same A-level grades. They were treated very differently.
While the "home student" was rejected, the other was strongly
encouraged to apply.
Once the tutor heard that the latter would pay international fees,
the entry requirement became "slightly lower". At another
institution, the "overseas applicant", whose alleged qualification
fell far short of the formal entry requirements, was told: "You'd
be surprised at some of the applications we do receive." Of
the 28 British universities investigated, the reporters discovered
that more than a quarter - among them Oxford University, the London
School of Economics and Edinburgh University - "offered more
encouragement to the prospective students from overseas".
Of course, admissions tutors are entitled to exercise a degree
of flexibility when dealing with overseas applicants. And, given
the heterogeneous background of students coming from abroad, universities
have a justifiable case for exercising discretion. There is even
a legitimate argument for recruiting some able overseas students
whose formal achievements might be lower than the standard requirements
for entry to a particular course.
Such flexibility, however, should not be driven by narrow financial
imperatives. As matters stand, we are in danger of sending out signals
that fee-paying overseas students can buy their way into the university
system, which can only have a corrosive effect on academic life.
Once money becomes a criterion for selection, how long before it
begins to exercise the way students are treated? And how long before
the awarding of degrees becomes influenced by the exigencies of
in the Times Higher Education Supplement, 16 July 2004