Non-EU international students at UK universities less likely to get top grades, data shows

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Students from outside the EU at universities in the UK are much less likely to obtain top grades than their British counterparts, according to data that will add to pressure on institutions accused of putting financial concerns ahead of academic quality.

A total of 28 per cent of non-EU international students received a lower-second (2.2) or third-class degree in 2021-22, compared with 20 per cent of domestic students, according to a Financial Times analysis of figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

The findings come after funding pressures have left UK universities increasingly reliant on fees from international students — who on average pay about twice what domestic students pay each year — to balance the books. Fees from non-EU students now account for one-fifth of universities’ income, double what it was a decade ago.

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The quality of the international student intake came under fresh scrutiny last month when Lord Jo Johnson, former Conservative universities minister, warned that rising numbers of foreign students were “reaching the political limits” of tolerance because too many were dropping out of courses or lacked the means to support themselves. He called for urgent action needed to “weed out” weak applicants.

According to the FT analysis, the attainment gap was largest at top universities, where international students are squeezing the number of places for Britons. Undergraduates from outside the EU enrolled at the research-intensive universities in the Russell Group were twice as likely as UK students to receive a 2.2 or third-class degree in 2021-22. 

The Russell Group said there was a “degree of adjustment” for international students and that universities had put in place a range of support to ease the transition. 

Some universities with large international intakes have a much larger attainment gap than the sector as a whole. At Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Sussex, the share of non-EU students obtaining the lowest grades in 2021-22 was more than three times higher than for UK students.

At Nottingham Trent University, more than half of non-EU students received a 2.2 or third, compared with a quarter of UK students.

Universities UK, the sector lobby group that represents more than 140 universities, said language barriers and different education systems partly explained the attainment gap. 

“The UK has a global reputation for the quality of education and rigorous quality assurance,” it said. “Universities are keenly aware of these challenges and provide a range of services to support their transition to studying in the UK. This is an area of ongoing research.”

Students from the EU perform better than other international students and in some cases better than UK students, but they make up a small proportion of the undergraduate intake. In 2021-22, more than 90 per cent of first-year international students came from outside the EU.

Students from China, India and other Asian countries are driving the rise in international student numbers. Dropout rates and non-completion for these students are bigger issues for the sector, according to Johnson.

“The real issue to focus on is the rising dropout rate of international students from India and Bangladesh,” he told the Financial Times. “It is essential universities and government forge a compact whereby all institutions will require tuition fees to be paid upfront.”

There is only a marginal difference in dropout rates for UK and international students, according to data from the Office for Students, England’s higher education regulator. A breakdown for specific countries is not available.

Nottingham Trent University said the discrepancy partly reflected its determination to root out the problem of grade inflation in higher education, for which it had been “widely recognised”.

“It is important to note that 2.2 is a good degree, and highly valued by employers both in the UK and abroad. For the skills-based recruiter, academic qualification levels are becoming less significant,” it added.

Sussex university said recent internal data pointed to a narrowing attainment gap between international and domestic students, but acknowledged that it could do more to ensure all students achieved their potential. 

“We’re working hard to continue this progress through greater investment in academic support, from intercultural awareness to further language support,” it added.

Queen’s University Belfast also said it was working hard to support international students and had recently put in place additional measures to help them succeed.