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UK monitoring agency Ofqual raises concerns about assessment standards

The UK is beginning the year with unwelcome news in the higher education sector.

First, the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation in the UK (Ofqual), has issued a statement that it is unimpressed with the quality and assessment procedures among 29 degree-awarding organisations issuing qualifications to foreign students under the Tier 4 visa category. It is withdrawing its recognition of two such organisations, and promising to do the same to others if its ongoing review process warrants it.

Second, for the first time since it began recording international student number enrolments in British higher education institutions, the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) has measured a decline in first-year non-EU international student enrolments, most dramatically among Indian and Pakistani students.

We will look at each of these developments in turn.

Questions about the integrity of degrees being awarded

Ofqual, an examinations monitoring agency in the UK, is raising alarm bells about the quality – or lack thereof – of assessment standards at certain college courses in which foreign students are enrolled in the country. Ofqual said “thousands” of foreign students may have received degree or post-graduate qualifications that are substandard.

Ofqual came to this conclusion after its inspectors found that two-thirds of the Tier 4 qualifications-awarding organisations it tested provided qualifications processes “that did not meet the required standard.” Tier 4 is a visa category designed to permit eligible, non-EU adult students “who want to come to or remain in the UK for their post-16 education.”

Inspectors also concluded that all awarding organisations it scrutinised were passing students in courses whose work did not merit a pass. According to The Telegraph, it also “found examples of students being “over-marked,” plagiarism going unpunished, and inconsistent grading by examiners.

Ofqual suggested that offending organisations might be guilty of a “compromise of standards to gain commercial advantage” over competitors.

Jane Farleigh, Ofqual’s director of regulatory operations, said the review was prompted by complaints about the quality and assessment of Tier 4 Level 6 and 7 courses (for more on these levels, please see this overview). Twenty-nine awarding bodies offer qualifications of this sort at this level. Ms Farleigh said:

“The review is not about the legality of students’ entry in the UK. Our role is to make sure that the awarding organisations offering qualifications used in this sector are meeting the standards we require of them.”

She continued: “…we found some serious concerns. As a result we have taken regulatory action against a number of awarding organisations including withdrawing recognition from LCM [London Centre of Marketing] and publishing a notice of intention to withdraw recognition from AABPS [Accrediting and Assessment Bureau for Post-Secondary Schools]. We are now going on to review the remainder of the awarding organisations offering these qualifications and will take action if we find cases where things are not up to standard.

It is important that students are treated fairly and have access to high quality qualifications. Where this is not the case and students are being let down by qualifications that are not up to scratch, we will take action.”

“We would urge anyone taking an AABPS or LCM qualification who has concerns over their studies to talk to their college. We have asked schools and colleges to be ready to give advice and guidance to them on their options.”

Ofqual’s findings are potentially dangerous to the UK’s international college sector for two reasons:

  • They may, despite Ofqual’s assertion that the findings do not demonstrate that students are entering the UK on Tier 4 visas for dubious reasons, suggest to some government officials and citizen groups that immigration rules need to be tightened further.
  • The UK relies on its reputation for the quality and prestige of its higher education offerings. It needs this reputation more than ever in the face of its stricter immigration rules and the image it has projected in some target markets (including India and Pakistan, more about which below) that it is unwelcoming to foreign students.

At the same time, Ofqual’s review and regulatory actions may well signal to international students that the quality of their education and degrees will now be further protected in the UK. In other words, the review, over time, will strengthen the integrity and reputation of the system.

Enrolment declines

For the first time since the Higher Education Statistics Agency started collecting statistics in 1994/95, it has recorded a decline in first-year international student enrolments at UK higher education institutions. These fell by 1% in 2012/13, or in numeric terms, from 173,560 non-EU students in 2011/12 to 171,910 in 2012/13.

Fully 25% fewer students from India enrolled for the first time, and 17% fewer came from Pakistan in 2012/13. Chinese enrolments notched up 6%, a spot of bright news since Chinese students compose the single largest international student body in the UK.

This year marks a continuing trend of declining first-year enrolments from India and Pakistan: in 2011/12, 32% fewer Indian students and 22% fewer Pakistani students enrolled in first-year courses.

And, Universities UK reported last year that only 44% of UK institutions polled about whether they had met their international student recruitment targets said they had in 2012/13, vs. 59% in 2011/12.

At the same time as the overall decline in first-year international student enrolments, UK institutions are also suffering from an 18% decline in domestic undergraduate students and a 20% decline from EU students. Such drops make the 1% decline in first-year non-EU students particularly worrisome.

The decline in first-year international students, of course, has been predicted by international education stakeholders since the British government first announced its net migration reduction target and associated visa regulations.

Still, government ministers are saying that on the domestic front at least, the first-year enrolment trends are not as alarming as they seem. As reported in University World News:

“Ministers say that the figures are skewed because students took up places in 2011/12 to avoid the up to £9,000 (US $14,900) a year fees for English universities imposed in 2012/13, and that applications for the 2013/14 academic year are up. Figures from the admissions service UCAS show a 7.1% increase for English universities.”

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