London : Britain’s Oxford University, one of the world’s most prestigious educational institutions, may be risking its scholarly reputation in favour of commercial interests by courting rich but academically weaker overseas students. An internal report has warned that the university’s admission of wealthy foreign students with often poor grades “poses severe reputational risk”.

These so-called “associate students”, who generally have lower than average grades than a typical Oxford undergraduate, pay as much as 13,000 pounds a term and can stay on campus for up to a year. “Although there is some assessment of their GPA [Grade Point Average] scores before they are admitted by each college, the transaction seems to be one of a purely commercial kind,” the report said.

While these associate students are not officially part of the university, it is feared that colleges independent of the university and free to set their own admissions policies granted them admission for “purely commercial” reasons.   According to The Daily Telegraph, the inquiry was prompted by concerns about the number of associate students and their links with Oxford.  The inquiry was held by a working group chaired by Professor Paul Slack, a former pro-vice-chancellor at Oxford.        As many as 300 associate students are admitted to Oxford each year, usually through a third-party organisation which then makes a payment to the college.

The Washington International Studies Council (WISC), which claims to be the largest overseas study programme at Oxford, charges $ 20,900 (13,430 pounds) for a 13-week term.   About 4,000 pounds of that total is paid to the Oxford college, and students can attend for up to a year. WISC offers the candidates, who are mostly American students, entry to Trinity College, Christ Church, New College and Magdalen. Associate students do not have to demonstrate academic standards as high as students admitted through the standard intake.

The WISC website states that the students are degree candidates of their home colleges and not of Oxford.  However, it says the students are “taught the same way and to the same standard by Oxford tutors” and can refer to being educated at Oxford on their CVs.   In the report published recently by the central university, senior Oxford figures said they feared it would be “difficult for the uninformed reader to detect that there is any significant difference in the experience of its students coming to Oxford for a limited period from that of a full-time matriculated undergraduate”.

  Official figures seen by the Telegraph show that colleges continue to recruit several such candidates. In the academic year 2010-11, Christ Church admitted 48 associate students, receiving more than 50,000 pounds in fees. St Catherine’s, which is not included in the WISC programme, took in 33. “Associate members (formerly known as ‘associate students’) pay a fee to use college facilities for a term. This is a way for colleges to make their facilities more widely available while earning income,” an Oxford University spokesperson said.

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