Off the beaten pathway: why UK universities should open up to more partnerships
“It may be that the rapid adoption of embedded pathways by UK universities is a case of hungry institutions in an international restaurant ordering the only menu item they understand, as opposed to the best dish”
University pathway programmes for international students have been the subject of much debate in recent years. The UK pathway market is flourishing, but universities should consider they’re limiting their options with a single partner, argue Prateek Aneja and Ryan Craig, vice president and managing director at University Ventures.
One of the most remarkable developments in UK higher education over the past decade has been the rapid adoption of embedded pathway programmes by universities. Embedded pathways serve international students through Foundation Year programmes – including EFL training and development of general academic preparedness – that are located on or adjacent to campus, are operated by commercial providers, and guarantee progression to students who achieve at the requisite levels.
Presently, 18 of the top 30-ranked universities have implemented embedded pathways, putting the UK far ahead of its competitors in the international higher education market. The Australian market for embedded pathways took longer to develop, and Canadian and US markets haven’t gone nearly as far or as quickly, particularly amongst elite institutions.
But there is a dark side to embedded pathway programs that should not be overlooked: students who don’t achieve at the requisite level often hit a dead end. When they’re not admitted to the associated university, many end up returning to their home country having made an unsuccessful investment in British education.
“There is a dark side to embedded pathway programs that should not be overlooked: students who don’t achieve at the requisite level often hit a dead end”
When UK universities adopt embedded pathway programmes, here’s what they are saying, in effect:
- We need more fee-paying international students
- We plan to rely on one pathway provider’s reputation, preparation model and network of international agents to source and prepare these students
We have no issue with the first point. There is no question that UK universities would benefit from more international students, particularly post-Brexit where there is expected to be a drop in EU students and research funding. But there are increasing reasons to question the second. It may be that the rapid adoption of embedded pathways by UK universities is a case of hungry institutions in an international restaurant ordering the only menu item they understand, as opposed to the best dish.
The UK has a proud history of independent sixth form colleges. They were established in the early 20th century to prepare students for Oxbridge and for officer-level entry into the armed forces. The growing internationalisation of UK education led some sixth forms to reposition themselves as comfortable transitional schools for international students seeking to matriculate at UK universities. The first formal independent foundation year programme at a sixth form college was established by London’s David Game College in 1989.
These institutions pride themselves on small class sizes, flexibility in subject selection and strong pastoral support whilst providing a college-like atmosphere. Moreover, these colleges tend to be examination-focused, thoroughly understand the UCAS admissions process and successfully guide advice-hungry international students on their college application journeys. Many independent programmes have also built great reputations and acquired independent stamps of approval. For example, Kings Education’s programs are accredited by Edexcel, now owned by Pearson, the UK’s only privately owned examination board.
With the rapid growth of embedded pathway programmes, some sixth forms have been experiencing an existential crisis. As embedded pathways continue to grow in size and number, we read alarming reports of growing competition, funding cuts and consolidation of sixth form schools.
If you talk to agents in source countries – or better yet, the families of students seeking to study in the UK – they will tell you that embedded pathways are attractive for one primary reason: guaranteed progression. The implied promise of admission to a known university – if the student achieves at the requisite level – is valued highly. Families sending their children abroad for university are already taking on a great deal of risk. The last thing they need is the additional risk of not having a clear path to a known university.
“Families sending their children abroad for university are already taking on a great deal of risk. The last thing they need is the additional risk of not having a clear path to a known university”
This is where sixth form colleges and independent foundation year programmes have fallen short to date. But there is no reason why independent programmes can’t enter into guaranteed progression agreements with specific institutions, thereby providing families with the best of both worlds: the history, flexibility and support of sixth form colleges and the certainty of guaranteed progression to one or more known universities.
Some schools already do this: Study Group’s Bellerby’s offers a conditional letter of acceptance to Durham University or the University of Lancaster when students are admitted to their foundation programme; Kings Education has now done the same thing with Aston University, which has has agreed to admit Kings students who score at or above admissions requirements on foundation/A-levels and IELTS examinations.
Fostering guaranteed progression agreements with a range of universities will allow sixth form colleges to give international students the best of both worlds. Students in search of certainty will no longer need to commit to an embedded pathway at a single university, and a range of guaranteed progression arrangements may lead to a better student-university match. Just as importantly, students at independent colleges are less likely to hit a dead end. Independent colleges are typically successful at finding a higher education option for every motivated student.
“The risk-return of entrusting the sourcing of international students to a single company will fail to compute for an increasing number of UK universities”
From the university’s standpoint, it’s possible that students matriculating through such programmes are exactly the intellectually curious, open-minded students they are seeking – students who care more about learning than the university’s brand and ranking. Furthermore, universities that seek to partner with a range of independent sixth form colleges and foundation year programmes rather than a single embedded pathway are expanding their marketing network. No longer will they be reliant on the sales resources of a single company.
For these reasons, universities that already have embedded programmes should insist on their ability to enter into guaranteed progression arrangements with independent programmes. The risk-return of entrusting the sourcing of international students to a single company will fail to compute for an increasing number of UK universities.
Only time will tell what this uncertain political landscape will entail higher education in the UK. One thing is certain: in a world where UK may be perceived as a less welcome place for international students, providers need to provide new attractive educational options. Independent sixth form colleges and Foundation Year programmes with guaranteed progression to UK universities are a good one to watch.