Foreign students are not ‘jumping the queue’
by Matt Grist
I am a big fan of the Telegraph’s investigative journalism. The paper worked hard to uncover the MPs expenses scandal and recently exposed the gaming of the secondary-level exams system by exam boards. But today’s ‘sting’ story, which claims that foreign students are ‘jumping the queue’ at ‘top’ UK universities, is not the paper’s finest hour.
First, the facts. UK students are recruited under a ‘quota’ system which caps the overall level of student numbers; foreign students are recruited from outside this system. It just isn’t possible for a foreign student to ‘jump the queue’ because there are two separate queues. Moreover, there isn’t a chance a British university would take fewer home students than its quota allowed for, since such students make up its core income.
Second, let us consider the accusation that foreign students are admitted with lesser qualifications in order to earn universities hard cash. This contention is undoubtedly true: with domestic fees and block grant not covering some of universities’ more expensive activities, institutions look to alternative streams of revenue. They are likely to admit (for example) Chinese students on less stringent entry requirements. But they are very unlikely to go as far as the ‘agent’ in the Telegraph story claimed and offer an AAB ‘A’ level-grade course at CCC. Such a dilution of standards would soon tarnish an institution’s reputation and thus its share of the lucrative market in international students.
Is it immoral to admit foreign students into our universities on lesser terms? Well perhaps, but doing so helps subsidise the courses that home students take as well as make many of our universities truly global institutions (something some of our European competitors would kill for).
In an appeal to a prominent section of its readership, the Telegraph also complained about wealthy parents in the UK not being able to pay the higher fees paid by non-EU students, which means those parents are not able to take advantage of the concomitant relaxed entry requirements. Not content with buying educational success through expensive private schools and tutors, these parents are apparently upset that they can’t buy the best degrees too.
There is, however, a case for allowing some domestic students to be charged fees somewhere close to those charged to non-EU students. Neil Shephard, an academic at Oxford University, has come up with the idea of ‘deferred fees’. These are fees additional to the current £9k maximum, for which universities themselves provide income-contingent loans. Such loans are only paid back when a graduate has already repaid his or her other student loans. So for example, Cambridge charges £12k a year for a degree in medicine, with £3k deferred until the first £9k is paid off and the graduate in question is earning over a particular threshold (say, £45k). Deferred fees could feasibly be charged for a variety of courses where graduates are proven to go on to earn very high wages.
Deferred fees are fiscally neutral and ‘progressive’ – anyone who gets on to the course can take out the additional loans, and as a high-earning worker after graduation, will make a greater contribution to funding our universities. With more money from deferred fees, universities would be able to convince the Treasury to lift the cap on domestic students, allowing more British people in total to benefit from higher education. For my money that’s a more worthy cause than that of rich parents who are denied the ability to buy degrees for their offspring.