Page last updated at 19:37 GMT, Tuesday, 17 June 2008 20:37 UK

Whistleblower warning on degrees

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education reporter

Anonymous academic

Degrees are being awarded to overseas students who speak almost no English, claims a whistleblowing academic.

The academic, at a world-famous UK university, says postgraduate degrees are awarded to students lacking in the most basic language skills.

There are concerns that financial pressures to recruit overseas students for cash rather than quality could threaten the credibility of degrees.

But Universities UK says there are "rigorous" checks on standards.

The number of overseas students taking higher degree courses, such as masters and doctorates, has soared - rising more than eightfold since the mid-1990s.

More than 60% of higher degree students are now from outside the UK.

Overseas students have been seen as a lucrative source of revenue - with the Higher Education Policy Institute calculating payments to universities of almost £1.5bn per year in fees plus £2.2bn in living costs.

Language doubts

But the whistleblowing academic, who wants to remain anonymous, describes a postgraduate system in which lecturers are expected to teach courses to overseas students who have only the most limited English.

These students, who pay an average of about £19,000 per year, will in theory have passed English language proficiency tests, but there are questions about the reliability of such evidence.

"For example, last week I tried to speak to a student who could not understand a simple request; in the end, we had to resort to pen and paper," writes the academic, who works at a leading Russell Group university.

"Someone who needs to communicate using pictures is, to say the least, unlikely to have passed the language proficiency test by themselves."

Describing the frustration of fellow lecturers, this academic says that once students have arrived at the university, often to study for a one-year masters course, it becomes difficult for them to be failed or sent home.

While there is intense competition for undergraduate places at the university, the academic says that it is much easier for overseas students to find places on taught postgraduate courses.

It is also unusual for students to fail postgraduate courses - so much so that there are no national figures. The Higher Education Statistics Agency says that its record-keeping on degree levels "does not explicitly contain the concept of 'failing' a course".

The overall category for those who leave, drop out or fail, known as "left with no award" is 10.9%.


There are concerns among senior figures in higher education about the consequences of the financial pressures on universities to recruit overseas students.

Graduation photo
1995: 8,689 UK students; 6,912 overseas students
2001: 27,985 UK students; 30,760 overseas students
2007: 34,600 UK students; 14,300 EU students; 44,225 non-EU overseas students
Source: HESA

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham and an expert on higher education, warns of the need to protect the reputation of UK university degrees.

"In the long run, the perception of a degree will change," he said.

"If international employers find that when they're recruiting from a British university and finding that the student cannot speak English and has no sign of the necessary capabilities – then the reputation will be gradually eroded.

"Once that has happened it will be very difficult to reverse."

Prof Smithers says these problems are a reflection of the changing nature of universities. Are they academic institutions or businesses?

"In the past, the system only had to consider the question of maintaining standards – now that they are run like businesses it changes the way they think about recruiting students and awarding degrees.

"It's a very important issue - it's the juncture of trusting universities and their need to secure their income stream.

"Teaching home undergraduates isn't cost-effective, so they are increasingly looking to overseas students for income."

'Low standard'

But once students have been recruited - and they are not able to carry out the academic work - Prof Smithers says that this creates a dilemma for universities.

Alan Smithers
Alan Smithers warns that financial pressures can challenge standards

"It's a difficult situation, when you might have students who arrive as part of a contract with an overseas government, such as training civil servants, and you find that they are of a low standard.

"What sort of standards do you apply? Do you fail all of them?"

And Prof Smithers says it is difficult for academics to protest.

"The concern is often unspoken. Universities are more centrally driven, it's quite hard even for heads of department and deans of faculty to stand against that."

He highlights how attempts to help students with inadequate English can create other problems. If they have to use translators to produce essays, it makes it difficult to assess the quality of the original work.

The worry about one-year masters degrees can also come from the customers, says Bahram Bekhradnia of the Higher Education Policy Institute - who talks about "mutterings round the bar".

"The concern about international students and their language ability is actually two way.

"I have heard examples of foreign governments saying they are concerned that in a year students may spend so much time getting their English up to scratch that they don't learn much of the subject matter.

"The Chinese ministry for example has stopped supporting students on masters courses."

The British Council in Beijing confirms that the "ministry of education support (in the form of scholarships) is now focused on PhD students and not Masters".

Almost a third of complaints received by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education relate to taught postgraduate courses - and more than a third were from overseas students.

Feeder schools

A survey of plagiarism published this month found that postgraduate students were disproportionately likely to have been caught cheating.

It is doing no one any favours for this sort of 'Cash for Hons' situation to continue
Carla, England

The UCU lecturers' union is also concerned about another aspect of overseas recruitment - in which private English-language colleges become partners of universities, recruiting students overseas and then acting as feeders for university courses.

This is a form of "privatising" access to universities, says UCU spokesman Dan Ashley.

"We have a proud reputation, but mustn't tarnish it for the sake of making a quick buck," he said.

Glasgow Caledonian University is planning a partnership with the privately-run INTO group, which would see INTO recruiting overseas students and providing a foundation course, in partnership with the university, on the university campus.

Students who have completed this foundation course could then transfer to the second year of a Glasgow Caledonian degree course.

This partnership, with an intended capacity of up to 600 overseas students per year, is being opposed by a campaign group of staff, including law lecturer Nick McKerrell.

"It shows higher education is being sold off," says Dr McKerrell.

The university rejects this, saying it is a joint venture which will bring financial and cultural benefits, without compromising standards, which will "help to safeguard the university's future in an increasingly competitive environment".

A spokesman for INTO says its arrangements are "not privatisation but a joint venture with it and the university as equal partners".

Universities UK, the body representing higher education leaders, also rejects the idea that there has been any lowering of standards.

A spokesman says that "all academic programmes in the UK are subject to the UK's rigorous and independent quality assurance procedures".

"Talented students from around the world contribute immeasurably to the intellectual vitality of UK higher education and make a critical contribution to our international standing.

"UK degrees are recognised around the world as being high quality and lead to excellent employment opportunities."

A spokeswoman for the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills said it was up to individual institutions to monitor the quality of their courses and for the sector's representative body, Universities UK, to comment on the issue.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

It's about time the lid was blown off this practice. I'm a Lecturer at a Russell Group University and I wholeheartedly agree with the points made in your article. It's not just language either. In the rush for the glint of money we're taking students onto courses who may struggle with English but they don't even have the basic standard of education you would expect from someone undertaking post-graduate study. It's a disgrace. Some of our Departments have implemented taught Masters courses just to stay afloat. They don't take too much notice as long as the money rolls in but what does it say about standards? I'm sick of it. What a waste of our educational heritage. It's happening with undergraduate entry too. You can't fail them, even if they obviously aren't up to the course. Students won't want to come to a University that has a reputation for a high failure rate or where it is seen as "hard" to get a Degree. Will someone please wake up and smell what's being shovelled?
Simon, Nottingham

Having been enrolled in a Masters course at Cambridge, and having taught classes for a Masters course at Oxford, I can say I completely agree with the whistleblower. Several students I encountered were unable to understand English properly, nor write it sufficiently well themselves.
James, Oxford

I study currently at a university and can clearly see how this is a problem. There are many people in my tutorial groups who speak little or no English and in discusssion groups when we rely on them to research certain topics it is very frustrating because you cannot understand them. Also, tutorials are taught by postgraduate students and all of these are overseas and some do not have good English yet are allowed to teach students. It isn't good enough and I think the financial incentives mentioned above have a lot to do with it.
Lloyd, York

This is a very true story. University fees for international students are, at the least, an average 3x the amount for home students, and because of the unceasing availability of foreign students, universities will try to channel as many through as possible. It is certainly threatening the entire degree system.
Ralph, Gillingham, Kent

This is happening all across the country - the root cause is greed by the Universities as foreign students bring in so much extra income. I have dissertation students who, because of weak English language skills, resort to plagiarism. I fail them and I am considered the problem!
Peter, Portsmouth

I agree in the strongest terms. I am a postgraduate student at one of the most prestigious universities in the country and have been left shocked by the dismal standard of academics at a university which is often bracketed alongside the likes of Oxford and Cambridge. This is not due to the standard of teaching. Indeed, the lecturers are quite impressive, but rather the number of international students who can hardly put a few sentences in English together - let alone, entire paragraphs. Although to be fair, they have improved with time. Over frank conversations with many of these international students, they readily admit to having others write their personal statements and take their English language examinations. I refuse to believe that the universities are unaware of this. In either case, stringent measures must be put in place to ensure that this comes to an end. It has a disastrous impact on the quality of education not only for the local students, but indeed, the international students as well. And to pre-empt anyone accusing me of lacking cultural sensitivities... As one can tell from my name, I come from an ethnic background and have spent the majority of my life in the developing world. But, I cannot condone the use of similar circumstances as an excuse for any one to bring down the standard of education for others in British universities.
Arif Shah

I agree wholeheartedly, but aside from all the unfairness and frustration it causes, there's also a more practical aspect: health and safety. In my MPhil lab, one lab member did not understand local health and safety rules and used to leave hazardous materials lying around instead of disposing of them properly. It doesn't seem too much to ask that someone can speak English to a decent enough level to get the maximum out of their course and to minimise the risk to others who have to work with them!
Lizzie, Cambridge

My MSC Economics class at one of the Russell Group Universities was probably 90% foreign (myself included, although English is my first language). Some of the students’ language skills were extremely lacking – to the point where communication was all but impossible. It was incredibly frustrating, especially when we were split into groups for one course and I was the only one in mine with English as my mother tongue. Talking through our assignments and sharing ideas and knowledge wasn’t an option, and I feel robbed the course of a fair portion of its value. Lectures were also affected, with students holding up the entire class with mundane questions about basic meanings. Yes, we foreign students do add value – but please, please institute more rigorous language testing before letting us in (even if we are paying 3 times what local students are).
Lauren, London

I went to Cambridge University, and was surprised that some of the overseas student graduates had such poor spoken English. I don't see the value of a degree if one cannot communicate in daily life!
Shiraz Masood, London

I completely agree. I'm a UK final year PhD student in Biomedical Sciences, and I have watched international students, whose English is poor and grammar terrible, write a thesis in 2 months ( which was obviously written by the supervisor- the acknowledgments page was the only page not altered. It's an unfair system. period.
Stephanie, Nottingham

This is absolutely true - the idea that "rigorous checks" are preventing this kind of thing is complete rubbish. I did my PhD at a well-known red brick university and spent some time sharing an office with an overseas student. His English was so bad it was impossible for us to exchange any meanigful communication. Staff acknowledged this to be a significant problem, but the general feeling was that they were unable to turn down the income provided by overseas students. At the end of the day his supervisor will end up effectively ghost-writing his thesis as he cannot afford for students to fail and adversely affect his chances of receiving further funding.
Anon, UK

This is certainly true at the University of Sheffield. Overseas students are made to pay enormous amounts, then often are simply ignored because they cannot communicate in English. The problem exists in all departments, but is by far the worst in the hard science and medical fields. Engineering students seem to almost exclusively be Chinese with only the most rudimentary English abilities. If the universities are going to force such high fees from overseas students, they should at least make certain the students can actually keep up with the coursework and research.
Anon, Sheffield

There's another aspect - think of the poor students. I'm an academic and I used to sit on plagiarism panels at my last university. We would often see cases from students who had to resort to copying and pasting from the internet because they didn't have the English skills to do anything else. Each year the teaching staff on business masters would send one student to us as a token gesture because they knew it was rife but had been told that they couldn't force the issue by the VC. My heart went out to the (invariably) Chinese students who sat there and often didn't have enough English to understand what was happening. When they eventually did realise that not only had they failed but they would have to go home, minus their course fees and having been found guilty of a cheating offence they were astounded and horrified. It's endemic and shameful.
Christine, London

As a PhD student, it is clear to me and others that there are many, many postgraduate students attending UK universities without the most basic English skills. The pressure on academics and departments to source foreign students who bring with them a large bulk of funding means that the numbers of virtually English-illiterate students is rising. This is making life difficult for all involved - students being accepted lack the language skills to complete research and understand lectures; academics are unable to communicate complex subjects to the students; other students can't discuss their work with their coursemates. It's about time department heads and university administrators recognised a growing problem.
Owen, Leeds

This is totally true. I am currently doing a masters course, and on one module there are me and 6 others. I am the only one who speaks English as a first language; and 4 of the others barely speak any English. Group discussions are fun! I feel I am missing out somewhat as the lecturer has to dumb down his lectures - not something you would expect in a post graduate course. How can my work be graded equally against someone who cannot write sentences in English? It can't. Have to wait for results to see how we all do in this module.
Sophie, Wales

I am one of the overseas students who studied at Cambridge originally for a one-year Master's and eventually a PhD. As an American I was not subject to the language testing, but as an experienced educator I was requested by my instructors to help students on my program who did not have a clear grasp of English. One young woman who had her projects returned to her repeatedly due to her poor language skills, eventually received the same MPhil I did. She confessed to our group one evening that she had hired someone to take the English exams in her homeland because it was a requirement Cambridge needed, she didn't need it. To her it was just another part of the application form, not a pre-requisite she needed to fulfil in order to succeed. I worked hard on that course and did well. I paid the overseas fees out of my pocket in order to study at Cambridge. The experience of having this young lady on my course, and meeting others like her, lowered the credibility of my MPhil in my own mind. It lowered my pride in the accomplishment and my pride in being associated with Cambridge.
Anne, London

I honestly didn't realise this was news, I thought it was common knowledge that foreign students were guaranteed to pass. Our university is known for passing students with poor English skills. And not just spoken English, but written English too.
M K, Salford

Speaking from an undergraduate perspective, my uninversity was rife with individuals who could be described at best with being able to speak 'pigeon English' Whilst this not only severely restricts their ability to interact socially, it also in my experience increases the chances of these students copying submitted work off each other. It is also extremely frustrating having limited time in classroom sessions to speak with your tutor, as he/she is spending half their time trying to explain simple concepts to non English speakers.
Tom, Chelmsford

I regularly proof read assignments and dissertations for international students studying It's a joke to assume their level of English competency is of acceptable academic standards expected in previous years, especially when some MA courses have such low IELTS entry requirements. In my experience, these students elect to study MA courses which require minimal effort and short dissertations of 8,000 words. They know they'll pass as the universities need the money.
Sophie, Winchester

I have done two degrees. The first was accredited by Brunel and was everything I expected from a degree course. Everyone worked hard, if you couldn't keep up your results reflected your ability. My second degree was at an Essex university. I was amazed at some of the students on the course. Some were foreign students who were lovely people but struggled to understand lectures, essay questions and although they worked very hard it was clear they should never have been on the course. Amazingly everyone passed. I had felt proud when I achieved my first degree however having finished my second degree course I felt Univerity was all about business and attracting students - filling the places, getting in fee payers. If your results show your Uni was failing then students would not attend. There were people at Essex that would have struggled on a diploma course but everyone somehow passed. Now when someone tells me they have a degree I know how all too easily a degree can be achieved.
Barry, Essex

I completed a masters last year and one Asian student had such poor English he could barely say hello. He could not contribute to class discussion or write his own coursework in English. He had a personal tutor assigned to him who translated all his work from Korean. It was never made clear how much more assistance he got in order to complete the course. He then ended up getting the equivalent of a 2:1. I found that a little suspect and believe he should not have been allowed to do the course without passing his English proficiency test.
Sarah, London

As an academic at a "leading" UK University I can give first hand comments. The concerns from the anonymous academic are fully justified. These days, the Universities are only concerned with the number of students and the research council income. It is impossible to fail a postgraduate student.
Raphael, Edinburgh

Within Universities it is well known and openly talked about that foreign 'incomes' (students)are almost guaranteed a pass regardless of performance. As you can imagine this does nothing to help the mindset of home grown students (who can feel quite bitter about having to work harder for the same qualifications) or academics (who are effectively having to sabotage their own courses). I personally know of a number of PhD students, whose English was so bad that their supervisors had to write their thesis for them. Time for this to end I feel. Students from abroad can receive an excellent educational and life experience at our Universities and in turn contribute both money and their novel experiences and backgrounds, but it is doing no one any favours for this sort of 'Cash for Hons' situation to continue.
Carla, England

This is not just a problem for the students themselves, but also the other English speakers on the course. My Masters degree had a strong team working element which required all members of the team to contribute equally to a written report. Many of the foreign students on the course could not produce documents to a professional level, and it was left to the English speakers to spend their own time correcting the work. Not to mention, it is nearly impossible to have a discussion with people who's spoken English is poor. When I pointed this out to an assessor, I was told effectively tough luck. If i did not correct the english myself my marks would be penalised. I did not enroll in one of the world's top universities to correct other people's English.
Berney, Cambridge

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