A growing number of higher education institutions around the world are making use of academic preparatory programs, typically for students that lack the necessary training or language skills to meet given program entry requirements. The use of these programs has become especially prevalent in today’s world of internationalization and cross-border academic mobility.

International students undertaking these programs – known variously as bridge, pathway or foundation – are looking to improve their language skills to a level appropriate for higher academic study, as defined by a particular threshold on a standardized foreign-language test. Additionally, international foundation programs are designed to help students meet minimum academic requirements for entry to an undergraduate or graduate degree program, while also preparing them culturally for life and study in a new study environment.
The structure, length, content and oversight of these programs vary by country and indeed from institution to institution within a given academic system. For institutions or agencies evaluating these periods of study, differing standards of recognition, oversight and content make providing an equivalency challenging, especially in the instances where there is no resultant award or where awards are issued, but for which there are no standards approved by the national quality assurance agencies.
In this article, we take a look at some of the more common models in Britain, a country that has perhaps the highest concentration of foundation programs per institution of any in the world. We conclude with some thoughts on how best to evaluate these periods of study from a U.S.-equivalency standpoint.
In Britain, international foundation programs (IFP) exist alongside a range of other university pathway programs that are offered primarily to domestic students. The IFP is offered not only as a means of improving linguistic ability particular to a field of study, but also to bridge the gap between the British 13-year pre-university school system and the 12-year system common to a majority of education systems around the world.
Many different types of colleges and other post-secondary institutions, including universities, offer these IFPs, and delivery comes in many shapes and sizes. Some colleges of further education are affiliated to particular universities, meaning their programs are designed to prepare students for a specific program at a specific affiliating university, while other universities deliver their own IFP programs. Other programs are designed to be more universal in nature and offer access to a range of different universities.
Under a newer model, some universities are now subcontracting IFP delivery and international recruitment to private partners, who operate international centers on – or near – campus, but whose recognition or accreditation for said delivery could be considered somewhat tenuous from a transfer or equivalency standpoint.
Most IFP programs are offered by, or for, British universities at domestic campuses; however, today there are a growing number of affiliated programs offered to international students in their home countries, with transfer to the UK campus (or in some cases, branch campus) guaranteed upon successful completion of the program to the requisite academic standards.
Types of Foundation Year Programs in Britain
Access to Higher Education
The Access to Higher Education Diploma, as described on the qualification’s dedicated webpage (owned by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) for Higher Education), “is a qualification which prepares people [mainly British residents] without traditional qualifications for study at university. Access to HE courses are delivered by colleges in England and Wales, and are available in a range of different subjects, such as nursing, social studies, law, and art and design.”
Regulated by the QAA, Britain’s higher education standards watchdog, and validated by local awarding bodies, the diploma is offered in further education colleges in England and Wales with more than 1,1000 programs available across a broad spectrum of fields. Many programs have no formal requirements for entry and can be completed in one year, if undertaken full time. They are primarily, but not exclusively, designed for adult learners returning to education after a period of work.
The Access to HE Diploma is considered a full level 3 qualification (as defined by the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications (FHEQ) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland), which puts it on par with other qualifications providing access to university studies, such as A-levels and Scottish Highers. Some Access programs allow students to take one or two A-levels as part of the program. Approximately 20,000 students apply to British universities annually with Access to HE Diplomas.
Most programs are designed for UK residents only, but there are some that cater to international students and provide English language classes of approximately 20 hours a week.
University Foundation Programs
The traditional foundation year targets any student, whether British residents or not, with qualifications that fall short of the admission requirements for a specific program or who have an insufficient background in the subject.
Upon successful completion, these programs typically offer entry to specific undergraduate or graduate degree programs in specific fields. Many universities have their foundation programs set up as the first of a four-year program of continuous study (for traditional three-year undergraduate programs), or perhaps ‘year zero’ of a four- or five-year program in, for example, engineering or medicine.
The British Council maintains a searchable database of currently available foundation programs on its website EducationUK. Most foundation programs are considered certificate courses, although some do lead to qualifications accredited on the National Qualifications Framework, currently the Qualifications and Credit Framework, such as the BTEC Level 3 Diploma in Foundation Studies in Art and Design, which is a requirement for students entering art and design programs without A-level qualifications. For students with GCSE’s and at least one A-level,
another higher-level program is available for art and design degree admission purposes. The BTEC Level 4 Foundation Diploma in Art and Design is comparable to the first year of a university degree in the UK. WES equates the foundation program to “completion of a certificate-level program at a two-year institution” and the Level 4 program to up to one year of undergraduate study.
International Foundation Programs
The international foundation year targets students from non-English-speaking countries and includes English-language preparation alongside academic, cultural and study skills preparation. Students typically take basic courses in a given field as a means to learn the academic terminology and to bring them up to “Year 13″ level, with many international students coming from 12-year school systems. Programs are offered in a broad array of fields. Unlike similar programs in the United States, there is typically no credit accrued or transferred to full degree programs during the foundation year, with some exceptions, notably the Scottish programs.
These bridging programs are usually one year long (30 to 34 weeks) but in some circumstances, typically when a student has stronger English skills, institutions offer fast-track programs of six months as an intensive option. Assessment is usually conducted throughout the program by means of coursework and presentations, and sometimes with end-of-term examinations. Yearlong programs usually start in September and six-month programs in January.
Foundation programs exist most commonly for undergraduate preparation, but most providers also offer graduate-bridging programs for students holding bachelor – or equivalent – credentials, but needing additional language or subject-specific training for their desired graduate-level training.
Scottish Programs
Scottish universities traditionally allow English GCE A-level holders (with a minimum of three good A-level grades) to enter the second year of Scotland’s four-year undergraduate degree program, de facto exempting then from the first year of undergraduate study. This is because Scottish Higher National Courses are taken after Year 12.
Whereas English university foundation programs traditionally make up for lacking admission requirements and allow for entry into year one of a three-year program, Scottish university foundation courses are usually for international students only and may allow transfer into the first year of a four-year Scottish degree (not always fully).
University-Run International Foundation Programs
Many universities offer their IFPs as an integrated part of an undergraduate degree program, guaranteeing seamless entry into the first year of specific bachelor programs if the foundation year is completed successfully. Other universities run more generic foundation programs that while not integrated into a full undergraduate program of study still offer guaranteed entry to a range of programs if completed successfully. These programs are either offered directly through the university or at local colleges approved or ‘accredited’ by the university to run them, and might be used to apply to programs offered at other universities.
The University of Leeds in the north of England has been offering Integrated Foundation Programs to international students since 1989. They begin each September as ‘year zero’ of bachelor programs in: the arts (4 years total), business (4 years), design (4 years), engineering (4 years), joint honors (4 years), and science (4 years).
The University describes their programs this way:
Each of these programmes consists of two elements: the IFY (level 0) element, which is taught at National Qualification Framework (NQF) level 3 [A-Level equivalent], followed by a three or four – year undergraduate degree element, which is taught at NQF level 6 [bachelor equivalent]. The level 0 element provides a firm grounding in the subjects required for the undergraduate element and both elements are delivered at the University of Leeds.
Students in the Leeds program are tested in three subject areas for the academic component of the IFP, and if adequate grades are achieved they progress automatically to the first year of the undergraduate degree program. Entry into the Leeds IFP is also dependent on an overall minimum English-language score of 5.5 on the IELTS (or equivalent score in other standardized tests), except in arts and business, which require a 6.0 or better. A 10-week English language pre-session course is offered as an alternative if standardized scores are not high enough.
Within the University of Birmingham, the University of Birmingham Academy offers five pathway programs (arts and law, engineering and physical sciences, life and environmental sciences, medical sciences, and social sciences), each consisting of 120 credits (80 subject specific and 40 language and study skills training) offered in 10 to 20 credit classes – or modules. Specific degree programs require the completion of compulsory modules, while others are more elective in nature. Successful completion of the program with the appropriate grades offers guaranteed entry to year one of a relevant undergraduate program at the University of Birmingham.
The University of Bath offers its International Foundation Year at three local colleges that it has ‘accredited’ (or validated) to run the classes. Students take three subjects over two semesters (15 weeks of 23 hours each) and are required to achieve an IELTS score of 7.5 or better, with minimum grades in each course to advance to an undergraduate degree program. The program website also notes that:
International Foundation Year students are also able to progress onto undergraduate degree programmes at other institutions. Guidance and support will be provided for these students who wish to pursue a degree course at another UK university.
The universities of Warwick and Loughborough and other well-regarded universities also advertise their programs as being accepted by many other institutions.
Overseas International Foundation Programs
Many British universities run programs or have agreements with overseas providers of international foundation programs, whereby the university will admit into its degree programs students who have successfully completed an agreed-upon program taught at a private college overseas.
Much like the IFPs offered at institutions in the UK, students will enter their degree program at the beginning of the first year and without any credit accrued for advanced placement. Most overseas programs are offered in high-demand subjects, such as business, and in large markets, such as China, where recruitment potential is high.
As a side note on Sino-British programs, there are some programs that lead towards not only a British degree but also to a Chinese, MOE-approved degree. In these cases, the IFP may also include mandatory elements for a Chinese degree, including classes on “Mao Zhedong Thought” and “Marxist-Leninist Philosophy.” As these programs qualify also for Chinese four-year degree programs, in these specific cases, WES MAY ON A CASE-BY-CASE BASIS recommend credit for the first year of undergraduate study – usually evaluated as study in China and based on a CDGDC-issued transcript.
Lancaster University operates four foundation programs in China, run through four partner universities in Beijing, Guangdong, Shanghai and Sichuan. Admission to the foundation programs is based on the Chinese National University Entrance Examination – or gaokao – and a written and verbal English test. Students that complete the foundation program to the required level and with satisfactory English test scores are then admitted to a four-week study skills course at Lancaster University before beginning their chosen field of study.
Middlesex University operates campuses that offer its international foundation program in Dubai and Mauritius, in addition to its main London campus, which also offers the foundation program. Both of these foundation programs offer access to full degree programs at either the overseas branch campus or the UK campuses of the two universities.
An 11-university alliance, known as the Northern Consortium, guarantees graduates from its foundation programs a place at any one of the member universities’ programs in either the first year for foundation-program graduates or the second year for international diploma graduates. Programs are offered at 30 ‘delivery centers’ across the world, including the Sino-British College in Shanghai, a collaboration between nine of the consortium’s partners and the University of Shanghai for Science and Technology, where full in-country degree options are also available.
The Sino-British College is an example of a Chinese program that runs Sino-British transnational dual degree programs that lead to both a British AND a Chinese degree. In these cases, as noted above, WES MAY recommend credit for the first year of the specific degree program and it would be evaluated as study completed at a Chinese institution.
Third-Party International Foundation Years
Through a more recent model for the provision of international foundation years, a growing number of universities in Britain (and across the world) have entered into long-term contracts with third-party, for-profit private pathway and recruitment specialists.
Although models vary from partnership to partnership, private agencies are being contracted to develop and deliver English language and pathway programs, often on the university campus and through a purpose-built college or center, with the option for additional international recruitment, settlement and immigration services to be offered as part of the overall package.
Contracts are negotiated on a case-by-case basis, but the standard model sees the development of a private college or international center on – or near – the university’s campus. The private company recruits students from abroad using the university’s brand, while targeting students that do not meet the university’s admissions standards, typically because of inadequate English-language skills. The third-party provider then delivers the necessary pathway programs to prepare students for undergraduate or graduate study at the partner university.
Tuition for the pathway – or foundation – segment of the student’s university experience is paid to the private provider, which has varying degrees of autonomy over the actual academic provision. In some cases, the courses are developed by university faculty but taught by agency-employed instructors; in others, the university oversees all standards and provides instructors. As with the standard model for international foundation years, if students complete the program successfully, they gain automatic entry into the first year of their desired undergraduate program. The university receives a percentage of the tuition, or a set fee, in return for the use of its brand and facilities, while also enrolling a steady stream of new international students without the need to independently recruit.
Because these are separate for-profit institutions that do not have the same official recognition as the universities they feed, at World Education Services we usually consider the programs to be comparable to those offered at “non-accredited” institutions. Some of these colleges also teach the first year of the degree after the foundation year – and that first year would be evaluated as “one year of post-secondary study at a non-accredited institution.”
Major For-Profit Providers of Foundation Programs in the UK
Navitas is an Australian company that delivers pathway programs in collaboration with 30 colleges worldwide in seven countries, including all five of the major English-language destinations. It introduced its first pathway program for Edith Cowan University in 1994. In the United Kingdom, Navitas is currently operating ‘International Centers’ in affiliation with nine universities and offering programs from English language instruction to foundation programs for graduate study.
INTO University Partnerships is a British company that was established in 2005, developing its first comprehensive center with the University of East Anglia (UEA) that year. Through its public/private affiliate university centers, INTO offers international recruitment, settlement services, and English language and pathway programs. Since developing INTO UEA, the company has expanded its partnerships rapidly in the UK, now working with 17 universities, in addition to internationally in North America and China. According to the INTO corporate website, the company:
“May adapt partnership structures to address the legal and accreditation requirements of a given university. However, central to every INTO partnership is the notion that the university retains control over the quality of the academic experience and ensures high quality and consistent support services for students. In return, the university enjoys the benefits of working with a strong private sector partner which supports it in transformative internationalisation and student recruitment projects.”
Kaplan Inc, a New York-based company, is familiar to most in the United States for its history of offering test-preparation services; however, in recent years it has expanded aggressively into the university sector, both domestically and internationally. Kaplan has been working with university partners in the UK since 2006 and today offers direct admission into 10 universities through its eight ‘International Colleges.’ These colleges offer undergraduate and graduate degree preparation classes, and guaranteed entry to a degree at the partner university if students meet the required admission level at the end of their pathway program.
Kaplan also offers a university placement service for entry to non-partner universities for students undertaking the ‘Multi-Progression Program’ at its London campus. In addition, it works with agents around the world to provide recruiting services for its partner universities.
Study Group was founded in the UK in 1994 (since sold (and resold) to Australian private equity firms) and works in collaboration with 16 institutional partners in the UK through its network of ‘International Study Centers,’ located on or with access to partner campuses. In addition, the company operates its own college, Bellerbys College, with campuses in four locations and offering courses from GCSE up to graduate preparation.
Beyond the UK, Study Group has been expanding aggressively, with some 100 centers across the globe, in Australia, Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United States. Like Kaplan and INTO, Study Group works with agents around the world to provide recruiting services for its institutional partners.
Evaluating the International Foundation Year
Given the lack of any formal qualification for international foundation programs, and an assumed wide array of standards across providers (as evidenced by admissions and graduating requirements), establishing an equivalency for foundation programs is somewhat problematic, especially if an applicant for equivalency has no higher award.
While some universities and colleges award a certificate stating grades achieved upon completion of an international foundation program, there is no officially standardized qualification offered at the end of most programs. Britain’s Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education has no benchmarking standard for these types of courses. However, they are generally considered to prepare students to a level 3 standard (A-level equivalent) on the National Qualifications Framework, as defined by the relevant authorities in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, for students who wish to progress to level 4 (undergraduate) study.
Due to the long standing tradition of university autonomy in the UK, universities have always and still do design, teach and award plenty of “certificate” or “diploma” programs that do not comply with the QAA standardized credentials on the FHEQ. However, as there is no nationally regulated or standardized curriculum for IFP’s – as there is for A-levels – WES does not evaluate them, or more specifically does not recommend them for undergraduate transfer credit.

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