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Investigation into bad practice by agents recruiting overseas students launched

An investigation into allegations of “bad practice” by agents recruiting international students for UK universities will be launched, a minister has said.

Robert Halfon said he was “very disturbed” by a Sunday Times article alleging that overseas students were being offered places with lower grades at UK universities than domestic applicants.

The investigation included claims by agents recruiting for some universities in the Russell Group, which represents the most prestigious UK institutions, who allegedly said foundation courses with lower entry requirements provide overseas students with easier access to degree courses at universities.

The newspaper reported that British universities are paying agents and private companies 10s of millions of pounds a year to recruit international students, who pay much higher tuition fees than domestic students.

Speaking in the Commons on Monday, Mr Halfon, minister for skills, apprenticeships and higher education, said: “Whilst I am a strong supporter of international students, I want a level playing field for all domestic students as well.

“I met with vice-chancellors only yesterday afternoon, as soon as I’d seen the report in the Sunday Times, and I’m absolutely clear I’ve asked the Department for Education to take out an urgent investigation into bad practice by agents where it occurs.

“I was very disturbed with what I saw, and what we want – as I say – is absolute fairness of entry for domestic students as much as international students.”

Leaders in the university sector have said the Sunday Times investigation failed to distinguish between entry requirements for degree programmes and international foundation year programmes, which are designed to prepare students to apply for degrees but do not guarantee entry.

Challenged on whether the comparison in the article was fair, Mr Halfon told MPs: “Of course I agree that on entry requirements we should ensure we’re comparing like-for-like, absolutely, and are being fair on our brilliant domestic students.

“But I was appalled to see the reporting over the weekend which clearly showed bad practice in the use of agents and that is not acceptable.”

During the education questions in the Commons, Labour claimed the Government’s flagship childcare expansion plans are in “complete chaos” before they are due to start in England in April.

Shadow education minister Helen Hayes said: “With just over two months to go until the start of the expanded offer for two-year-olds, the Government’s plans for early years education and childcare are in complete chaos, with nurseries and childminders across the country still waiting to have their funding rates for April confirmed.

“How can the minister expect providers to confirm places with parents when they don’t even know what they will be paid?”

Education minister David Johnston said: “I think (Ms Hayes) knows that the reason providers don’t have their rates at the moment is because local authorities have not informed them of their rates.

“We published the rates in November and it’s then up to local authorities to tell their providers and that is the reason why they don’t have those rates.”

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan suggested to MPs that parents will not miss out on the Government’s flagship childcare offer in April.

A spokesperson for the Russell Group said: “While the use of agents is common practice in the sector globally to support students to identify suitable programmes and institutions, we agree there must be robust processes in place to ensure that these services meet and maintain high standards of quality and management.

“Our universities are already taking steps to address examples of unacceptable or misleading behaviour by individual agents, including reviewing and terminating contracts where they have fallen below the expected standards.

“We welcome the opportunity to work constructively with the Department for Education to further address and eliminate instances of poor practice.”