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How much of a problem are international foundation years?

  • 12 March 2024
  • By Josh Freeman
  • This blog was written by Josh Freeman, Policy Manager at HEPI.

The higher education sector is still reeling from claims in January by the Sunday Times that some Russell Group institutions admit international students, who often pay much higher fees than home students, with lower grade requirements.

Despite swift rebuttals by the Russell Group and Universities UK, the issue remains a hot topic. Key to the accusations was the claim that ‘international foundation years’, one-year courses which are integrated with a full degree course, are being used to circumvent normally strict entrance requirements. Universities UK has since commissioned the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) to undertake a review of foundation years and the Department for Education has committed to investigate recruitment practices around international students. As these reviews tick on, the issue seems likely to remain topical for some time.

Many in the sector still reject the claims made in the original Sunday Times article and it is useful to understand why. Firstly, in a now-infamous table, the article compared the entry requirements for an Economics degree for home students to international students entering through a foundation course. In response, the sector bodies pointed out that the comparisons are not like-for-like, and that it is wrong to compare the requirements for a foundation year – which is supposed to be a preparatory course – with the requirements for a home student starting the full course immediately.

Source: The Sunday Times

Secondly, the article cast aspersions on the quality of foundation year programmes. The Sunday Times quoted staff who worked for recruitment agencies targeting international students, who said the exams to pass the foundation year were ‘easy’. It also quoted data and anecdotal evidence which show the attainment of international students is lower overall. In response, the Russell Group said foundation years are proven ‘effective pathways’ into higher education, designed to overcome the challenges faced by many international students who might have only studied for 12 years, and not 13, before they enter UK higher education. Given the education some international students have received, they may need more support to attain the same level as home students.

From this back-and-forth, two questions emerge. Are equivalent opportunities provided for home students to enter through the foundation year route, in terms of the number of places available and the grades required? And can UK universities demonstrate their foundation year courses are high-quality, in the proportion of students who pass their foundation year and go on to achieve a degree with a high grade?

Last week’s HEPI report, based on previously unpublished HESA data, begins to answer these questions. These data are not a complete picture: they refer only to ‘integrated’ foundation years, as data on foundation year courses run by different institutions are not yet available. And as a measure of quality, they only address ‘continuation’ – in this case, the proportion who progress from the foundation year to the first year of a full degree – rather than establishing how many students go on to receive good degrees, as these data are only available many years later. But they are a helpful start.

The availability and quality of integrated foundation years

Based on HESA data, we estimate that of the approximately 63,000 students studying an integrated foundation year in 2020/21, no more than one-in-seven students (around 8,900 or 14%) was an international student. The vast majority (around 54,100 or 86%) were domiciled in the UK before their studies. Three-fifths of international students on the programmes (60%) studied in London or the East of England, and more international students (44%) than home students (39%) studied a course in Business and Management. The Sunday Times article suggests, speculatively, that up to 30,000 international students could be using ‘back-door’ routes overall, presumably including foundation years which are not integrated with a full degree. Even if this is the case, this is only just over half the number of home students (55%) who take foundation years.

It appears untrue to say there are more places available for international students overall. But this does not definitively prove that access is equal. Foundation year courses available for home students may, for example, have more challenging grade requirements. And the options may not be available at the same institutions. Data from the Department for Education show that only 4% of the students studying an integrated foundation year do so at a ‘high-tariff’ institution: three-quarters (75%) study at a low-tariff provider. International students may have more opportunities to enter higher-tariff institutions – where they are already disproportionately represented – while home students may be attending lower-tariff institutions at higher rates. This is an important question for the sector.

Secondly, we can begin to explore quality by looking at the proportion who continue in higher education after their foundation year. The continuation rate for integrated foundation years is 71% for international students, compared with 75% for home students. Acknowledging the challenges international students may have previously faced, this is a relatively small difference. By comparison, the equivalent rate for undergraduate students is 91% and the Office for Students requires undergraduate degrees to reach a continuation score of 80%. This suggests the reasons for concern over foundation year courses are not exclusive to international students.

Next steps

There is a lot we do not know. As the Sunday Times indicates, we lack basic data on the availability and quality of stand-alone foundation courses. Policymakers should urgently establish whose responsibility it is to collect data on these courses and ensure there is a rigorous process for doing so. As today’s report recommends, the OfS should segregate data on undergraduate courses with a foundation year from other undergraduate courses, and it should set different quality metrics for these courses. Other data gaps, such as the availability and grade requirements of foundation year courses at high-tariff institutions, could be published by these institutions themselves. This might reassure Sunday Times readers that there are plenty of opportunities available.

Finally, quality is paramount. The purpose of a foundation year is to make higher education accessible for students for whom it would not be otherwise. Institutions should be honest about whether their courses achieve these goals – if only to make the QAA investigation easier.

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1 comment

  1. David Ealey says:

    It is worth noting that a lot of International Foundation Years are run as stand alone courses and therefore do not get returned to HESA. whereas Home students will invariably be on an integrated foundation to enable them to access student funding.

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