International student experience finally takes centre stage

Anne-Marie Graham is Chief Executive of UKCISA.

The long-awaited refresh of the government’s International Education Strategy has finally landed.

When the strategy first launched back in 2019, many in the sector were perplexed by the lack of recognition for international students and the diversity of their experiences in the ambition to increase the number of international students studying in the UK to 600,000 by 2030. But this time around there is no mistaking the focus on the international student experience.

With a bold new title stating the government’s intention to work with the sector to support recovery and drive growth, it’s heartening to see the sector’s resilience and continued innovations in all areas of the student experience – from online teaching and learning, to mental health support – so clearly recognised by government policymakers.

While no-one will argue its inclusion isn’t a good thing, there is still some work to be done to fully understand the ongoing impact of the pandemic, and the UK’s exit from the EU, on the wider international student experience.

Working in partnership

Here at UKCISA, last July we published our policy position paper ‘Delivering a world-class international student experience’, setting out the 15 key steps the Government needs to take to deliver on the ambitions in the IES. In this paper, we called for policy changes and actions that would enrich the international student experience across every stage of the student journey.

Two of the key themes hone in on the need to develop a better evidence base to demonstrate the value of international students and international education more broadly, and improve graduate outcomes and employability.

Since then, we have been working to ensure that the student voice is heard across the sector and in government. We are pleased to see that this work has had an impact in the new IES, with UKCISA leading on two of the 14 actions in the refreshed strategy.

Action 5 will see UKCISA working in partnership with the Office for Students on a new project that will “find ‘what works’ in ensuring international students can integrate and receive a fulfilling academic experience in the UK”. An important outcome of this project will be further evidence of the positive impact of international students – both on their fellow students and in their communities – and how an international environment enriches the academic experience for all.

Action 6 refers to our recently formed International Student Employability Group (ISEG), which brings together sector partners – including UUK International, AGCAS and BUILA – with the CBI to “build understanding of the UK’s skills needs, international labour markets, and barriers to international graduate employability and share examples of best practice across the sector”.

Historically, there has been a huge evidence gap in this aspect of the student experience, and that’s why this action is so important. It also complements our work to support the introduction of the Graduate Route, including our involvement in the Home Office’s Simplification of the Rules Taskforce to review and advise on the new student immigration routes.

Cross-government working

These two actions mark a huge step forward in terms of recognition for the importance of the international student experience from government – and an acknowledgement that working closely with the sector helps ensure a responsive policy environment that delivers a positive experience for all. But what does it mean in practice for the international student experience?

At the launch event, Michelle Donelan referenced the UK’s “world class student visa offer”– but our experience in supporting and advising international students indicates that we can make further progress on this. Ensuring that international students have a good customer experience when applying for and obtaining their visas is a critical part of the student journey.

It’s therefore good to see a clear commitment for the Home Office to deliver improved and targeted communications for international students, an essential step if we are to achieve the ambition of 600,000 international students per year. UKCISA’s unique insights can help deliver these communications, and we will work with our members this year to gather evidence and case studies that highlight the diversity of international student experience in the immigration system.

Listening, learning, collaborating

By working with the #WeAreInternational student ambassadors and our sector partners on key issues from student mental health to employability, we have been able to place the student experience firmly on the agenda and ensure that their voices are heard in forums where it matters most.

The next phase of our work in this area will be developing an International Student Charter, which is being led by the ambassadors themselves and aims to demonstrate the sector’s collective commitment to delivering a world-class student experience for current and prospective students.

Looking to the future

The explicit references to enhancing the international student experience are a major step forward, not least because they will help to underpin advocacy work across the sector on behalf of international students.

As for UKCISA, aside from delivering on actions 5 and 6 in support of the IES, we will continue to support our #WeAreInternational Student Ambassadors to help ensure that the student voice is heard by government – and use our convening powers to advocate for policy changes that will enhance the experience of international students before and after they arrive in the UK, from application to post-graduation.

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