Growing pathways to study abroad

A new study predicts growth in English-language foundation programmes for international students, particularly in continental Europe, which has seen the number of English-medium degrees triple in the last seven years.

The report New Routes to Higher Education: The global rise of foundation programmes from Dutch-based StudyPortals and Cambridge English also predicts a slowing down of outbound students from China going to the United States, Japan and the United Kingdom.

In contrast, India is forecast to be the largest growth area followed by Nigeria, Malaysia, Nepal, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

The study claims to be the first global overview of foundation, or pathway preparation programmes, which help international students to bridge gaps in their academic knowledge, language proficiency and study skills, and ultimately, win a place on an English-language degree course.

The programmes usually last one year and offer a route into some of the West’s leading universities for students whose lack of English proficiency or academic qualifications prevents them from immediate direct entry to the first year of a degree course.

Most programmes are provided by universities or by corporate provider–university partnerships. The five biggest corporate providers – Cambridge Education Group, INTO University Partnerships, Kaplan International Colleges, Navitas and Study Group – provide almost half of the programmes worldwide.

Global value $825 million in fees

The global value of tuition fees alone from foundation programmes is estimated at US$825 million per annum, says the report.

Worldwide, StudyPortals listed 1,192 English-medium foundation programmes on its site in January this year when data was collected. Since then the number has grown by 20% to 1,427.

Britain currently dominates the market, with 748, or 63% of the programmes on offer. Oceania had 193 programmes – a 16% share – followed by North America with 145 programmes, Europe with 75 and 29 in Asia.

But this may not reflect actual student numbers as some UK programmes have small cohorts of 10 to 15 students, said Carmen Neghina, education intelligence specialist at StudyPortals and one of the authors of the report.

She told University World News: “It is difficult to know whether the total number of international students on UK foundation programmes is going up or down as the data is not collected by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, or HESA.

“But we do know there are more choices opening up worldwide for students needing these courses, particularly from Australia, and more recently from continental Europe.”

Europe set for pathway growth

The report says growth in English-medium degree programmes in mainland Europe has accelerated in recent years – rising from 725 courses in 2001, to 2,389 in 2007, and 8,039 in 2014.

In absolute terms, the largest number of English-language undergraduate and masters degrees is in the Netherlands (1,078), followed by Germany (1,030) and Sweden with 822.

Neghina said the Netherlands was leading the way in expanding its English-language undergraduate provision to help internationalise its higher education system and more universities are interested in offering foundation programmes.

Study Group opened an international study centre in Holland in 2013 to prepare international students for progression to seven Dutch higher education institutions.

Among them is Groningen University, where Rieks Bos, director of international affairs in the faculty of economics and business, told University World News that working with Study Group enables them to benefit from its international market reach.

“The foundation programme enables us to diversify our international student inflow.

“We’ve actually asked Study Group to limit the number of Chinese students in the foundation year so we can have a good mix of nationalities, with no one nationality accounting for more than 20% of the international student population.

“The foundation year enables us to get more students from countries like South Korea, Azerbaijan and Russia.”

Quality before quantity

Bos said: “Bringing in students from different cultural backgrounds to our classroom enhances the intercultural learning experience, but we always put quality before quantity and only invite those candidates on to our programmes who have the required prior knowledge and experience to be successful."

The quickest way to lose institutional commitment to internationalisation is to confront lecturers with students who are insufficiently prepared, Bos said.

“The Study Group foundation year gives us a pretty good idea of the scope and level of knowledge of the students and we can influence the curriculum and ensure that students are socially and culturally prepared for the ‘Dutch-style’ of teaching in higher education.”

US expansion

The US is also expanding its pathway provision, says the StudyPortals research. At present it only has a 12% share of foundation programmes on offer.

Tim O’Brien, vice-president of global business intelligence and development at INTO University Partnerships, and an expert adviser for the StudyPortals-Cambridge English report, said most US universities realise they need to become more international for their own students to compete in the global economy.

He pointed to Oregon State University as a good example of an institution that has gone from largely serving its local community to having a worldwide reach through partnering with INTO.

“They have gone from 4% international students to 11% in a matter of seven years, boosting their income from international tuition to US$100 million a year and going from having 970 international students to over 4,000,” he told University World News.

Britain could lose market share

Industry experts in the UK estimate that nearly 40% of international students studying in British universities took a foundation or pathway preparation programme before starting their first-degree course.

But this well trodden route into British higher education is under threat from increased competition from abroad and mixed messages from the UK government, said Janet Ilieva, director of Education Insight and a former market analyst with the Higher Education Funding Council for England, or HEFCE, and the British Council.

Visa restrictions for students wanting to study in the UK have been tightened in recent years, particularly at pre-degree level, and Home Secretary Theresa May used her speech at last week’s Conservative Party conference in Manchester to warn universities that rules must be enforced in relation to international students returning to their home countries after the expiry of their visas.

The UK welcomed the brightest students from around the world, May told the Conservative conference. “But the fact is too many are not returning home as soon as their visas run out.

“I don’t care what the university lobbyists say. The rules must be enforced. Students, yes; overstayers, no.”

In response, Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, agreed care must be taken to ensure students are genuine and that there must be mechanisms to ensure that individuals do not overstay.

But she warned: “While genuine international students in the UK continue to be caught up in efforts to bear down on immigration, it will feed the perception internationally that the UK is closed for business and does not welcome students.

“As the Foreign Secretary suggested last month, one step the government could take would be to remove international students from their net migration target.”

Governments overseas are becoming increasingly aware of the value that international students bring in both the short and long term, she said. “This is why the United States, Australia, Canada, Germany, France, China and others are implementing strategies and targets to increase the number of international students going to their universities.”

Foundation students could be caught in crossfire

O’Brien said that INTO and the four other big corporate providers have around 18,000 students on their foundation programmes in the UK.

“There is also homegrown provision by universities, such as Nottingham and Warwick, and a sizeable number of international students on different types of ‘pathway’ courses at independent schools doing A levels and further education colleges,” he said.

Ilieva and O’Brien fear that pathway preparation students could find themselves increasingly caught in the crossfire as the Conservative cabinet colleagues battle over whether further restrictions are needed to ensure international students are genuine, with a possible tightening of language requirements under consideration.

Most foundation programmes require minimum International English Language Testing System, or IELTS, scores of 4.5–5.5, says the StudyPortals report, whereas many UK undergraduate programmes require scores of 6.0–7.0.

O’Brien told University World News: “US pathway numbers are growing rapidly, while we are up around 8% so far this year in the UK despite constant changes to visa guidance that have undoubtedly unsettled students and recruitment agents.

“There is enormous historical goodwill to the UK but this has been severely tested and there is a danger that we could reach a tipping point.”

Chinese students could be hit hardest

O’Brien also warned that any British clampdown on non-degree international students was likely to hit exactly the wrong target – with Chinese students being the most likely to suffer from a tightening on the rules for English-language proficiency.

“We are all in favour of getting rid of the rogue operators, but the blunt instruments being used by the Home Office will cause massive collateral damage to the very people we are trying to build bridges and better understanding with.

“About 40% of our pathway students are from China; and one of the reasons so many of them come on pathway programmes first is to improve their level of English.

“Chinese students are the least likely to want to stay in the UK after graduating and yet raising the language requirements will hit them harder than say Malaysian, Nigerian or students from other Commonwealth countries.”

Growing foundations in Asia

O’Brien predicts future growth in pathway programmes in Asia to meet increasing middle class demand for lower cost options and points to regional hubs such as Singapore, which for years has been home to international students from Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam and elsewhere preparing for further study overseas.

A good example for students wanting a British higher education is the Northern Consortium UK, or NCUK, partnership. It handles around 3,000 students annually, delivering foundation programmes in the students’ home country. On completion, and with their English language skills upgraded, the students can study at one of the 11 universities in northern England, including leading universities like Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool.

Ilieva said she expected to see a greater shift towards pathway study via the home country route as it is significantly cheaper than an extra year abroad.

* Download New Routes to Higher Education: The global rise of foundation programmes here.

Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist who runs De la Cour Communications. He regularly blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ association, EUPRIO, and on his website.