A new study predicts rapid growth in English-language foundation programmes for international students in continental Europe following a tripling in the number of English-medium taught degrees over the last seven years

studyportals report coverThe report New routes to higher education: the global rise of foundation programmes from Dutch-based StudyPortals and Cambridge English claims to be the first global overview of foundation, or pathway preparation, programmes.

Such courses 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 and usually last one year.

The programmes 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, as I reported for University World News.

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

$825 million in fees alone

The global value of tuition fees alone from foundation programmes is estimated at US$825million per annum, and worldwide, StudyPortals listed 1,192 English-medium foundation programmes on its PreparationCoursesPortal.com site in January when data for the report was collected. Since then this has grown by 20% to 1,427.

Britain 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.

Carmen Neghina from StudyPortals

Carmen Neghina from StudyPortals

Carmen Neghina, Education intelligent specialist at StudyPortals, said it was 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.

More choice from Australia and Europe

“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”, she said.

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

The largest number of English-language undergraduate and master’s degrees is in the Netherlands (1,078), followed by Germany (1,030) and Sweden with 822.

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

Going Dutch

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

One of 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.

“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.

Quality before quantity

Loughborough uni

Loughborough University’s international foundation programme

Rieks 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”, he said.

US expansion

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

Tim O’Brien, Vice-president, Global business intelligence and development at INTO University Partnerships, said most US universities realise they need to become more international for their own students to compete in the global economy.

He singled out 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$100million-a-year and going from having 970 international students to over 4,000.”

Britain could lose market share

It is estimated 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.

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 the recent Conservative Party conference 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 continues to welcome the ‘brightest students’ from around the world, she said. “But the fact is too many are not returning home as sonar their visas run out.”

In response, Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of Universities UK, 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 to last month, one step the government could take would be to remove international students from their net migration target”, she said.

Foundation students could be caught in crossfire

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

“There is also a sizeable number of international students on different types of ‘pathway’ courses at independent schools and Further Education colleges.”

Janet Ilieva

Janet Ilieva

Both Janet and Tim fear that pathway preparation students could find themselves caught in the crossfire as 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.

Tim said: “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

He said any British clampdown on non-degree international students was likely to hit Chinese students, particularly any 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.

“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.”

Janet 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

* THIS BLOG is a slightly abridged version of a feature I wrote for University World News, published on October 9, 2015, with the headline ‘Growing pathways to study abroad’.

Main photo: International foundation programme at Bristol University