A SCOTTISH university has set up a controversial partnership with a private education company to recruit and teach overseas students.

Under the arrangement, Stirling University and INTO University Partnerships will operate two study centres for international students in Stirling and London. The centres will provide a range of academic and English language preparation courses for overseas inter­national students, with teaching due to begin in September.

Students who successfully complete the preparation courses will be able to progress to undergraduate or post-graduate degree programmes at Stirling University.

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Officials said the partnership would expand the university's recruitment of overseas students - who are valuable to universities because they pay fees at the market rate. However, unions representing academics and other university staff warned of the creeping privatisation of higher education.

Relationships between INTO and other universities in the UK have already proved controversial, with concern over the use of public buildings for private gain and the employment of staff on different terms and conditions. Unions have also warned the setting up of feeder colleges reinforces the view that overseas students are seen as a cash cow.

Mary Senior, Scottish official for the UCU Scotland union, said: "We have real concerns about the privatisation of university teaching and the resultant impact on quality.

"Last week York University joined the list of universities that have rejected a deal with INTO. We fear Stirling is placing its long-standing reputation at risk by going down this risky route."

However, Professor Gerry McCormac, the university's principal, said INTO shared the institution's commitment to high-quality education.

He said: "The partnership will achieve a step change across the university in relation to our international student experience. The new London base ... will provide students with internationally recognised degrees in the heart of one of the world's most important financial, cultural and political centres."