This article is more than 1 year old

As our international population changes and grows, universities must change too

As speculation mounts over potential changes to immigration rules impacting universities, Wendy Alexander reviews the issues involved in supporting the new cohort of international students
This article is more than 1 year old

Wendy Alexander is Vice-Principal (International) at the University of Dundee

For much of the academic year there has been speculation over the immigration rules surrounding international students.

The sector hopes its campaigning, supported by allies within Whitehall, will protect the graduate route – allowing students to remain in the UK for two years of post-study work.

This has underpinned the UK’s return to a competitive offer for international students when compared to other major study destinations.

But last autumn, the Home Secretary also signalled that she planned to restrict international masters’ students from being able to bring dependents to the UK.

An announcement on whether that will actually happen may be imminent.

The signalling that dependents were to be banned reverberated around the world, and has stimulated short term demand – as potential postgraduate students have seen the January and September 2023 entries as potentially their last chance to have their families accompany them to the UK.

For universities, the Home Office’s refusal to pass on data on dependent visa issuance means we have been unable to be transparent with local authorities or health services about local demand for family housing, nursery or school places.

The debate around dependents is nuanced – but denying us that data is the antithesis of joined up government.

New international students

Whatever the outcome on dependents, the new sending nations are here to stay. And these new students place new demands on institutions. According to HOLONIQ, over 70 per cent of global demand for higher education is in South Asia and Africa, as domestic capacity in these countries struggles to meet demand.

It’s already the case that first year Nigerians in the UK outnumber first years from the EU 27 member states. And ApplyBoard recently forecast that Nigeria would overtake China as the UK’s second largest source market after India for international education in the next five years.

Different global applicant preferences make it challenging for institutions to achieve a sought-after diversity of intake:

  • Chinese students are more rankings sensitive.
  • Those that are less affordability conscious habitually look to the Russell Group.
  • South Asian students appear to be both rankings and price conscious.
  • African students are typically more affordability conscious, and often gravitate to a university with an existing African community that can provide mutual support.

Africa and South Asia comprise over sixty diverse nations, but there are some common themes. Unlike China, these geographies send postgraduate students, often older, with dependents at home, and often facing strong affordability challenges – which means they wish to earn whilst they learn to reduce financial pressures on those accompanying them or back home. As domestic wealth rises we can expect more African and South Asian undergraduates, but the current central growth driver is taught postgraduate students.

Taken in the round, this all means that universities need to reassess their student support offer to better meet new student needs if the UK is to retain its reputation as a high-quality teaching, student support and progression destination.

Supporting students to succeed

So what can be done? We already lag on dimensions such as safety, affordability, welcome and work experience. But one of the attractions of the UK is that with a one-year masters as standard, and relatively successful visa processing, we represent some of the quickest routes to professional post-graduation employment and a move onto the skilled worker visa.

These older postgraduate students may not be looking for a traditional undergraduate student experience. Their aspirations are different – with a focus on securing their qualification, applying for the graduate route and exploring skilled migration opportunities whilst supporting their dependents here or in their home nation.

The push factors are strongest in nations subject to economic and political instability. Following the recent Nigerian election, the local media talk of the Japa phenomenon – the desire to flee which is driving decision making, intensified by the fear that 2023 will be the last chance to bring dependents to the UK.

Rising inflation in the sending and destination countries combine to undermine students’ financial security, compounded by rising accommodation costs. Nigeria’s inflation rate hit 22 per cent in March. ICEF recently highlighted the impact of the redesign of the naira (the Nigerian currency), foreign currency controls and currency depreciation on further undermining the ability of Nigerian students to finance their studies without hardship.

But Nigeria is not alone in facing an inflation and currency crisis. In March inflation in Sri Lanka stood at 50 per cent. Inevitably with such fast moving domestic crises, students from these countries face difficulties during their studies, notwithstanding they will have met the UKVI financial credibility test at the time of their visa application.

This year has seen accommodation shortages across the sector – with a lack of family accommodation and a lack of lower priced PBSA beds particular pain points. Banning dependents may moderate demand for family accommodation, however older postgraduate students do not want hall places, and would rather find reasonably priced rental accommodation.

It all means that universities must work closely with local authorities – and it is easy to point to the latter as bodies that can ensure local planning policies are more sympathetic to HMOs,, and with central government, support the functioning of a viable student rental market. Planning authorities need to use their planning powers and their convening role to model place-based demand in partnership with local tertiary education providers.

One consequence of the growth in volumes, age profile and differing cultural norms is the rise in pregnant students. The issues around pregnancy and a break in study are complex and vary by individual circumstance and programme. However the challenges around giving birth in a foreign country with limited family support can place significant demands on student support, welfare and compliance services.

Acting not blaming

It’s easy to point to others, but the wider planning and housing landscape is not a reason for the sector to wring its hands. As Jim Dickinson has argued on Wonkhe, universities are important actors in their local communities. It is possible to lead by example and to use one’s convening power within the institution and beyond to ensure appropriate student services.

The first steps are pre arrival, ensuring a student is ready to study. For example, we now undertake enhanced pre-CAS checks, often in country, exploring a student’s resources more deeply – although this can be challenging when candidates meet UKVI conditions.

I doubt any university in the UK would claim to have addressed all the evolving needs of new cohorts. But we have learned some lessons, and share them here to encourage others who are also rapidly pivoting to the needs of new international students:

  • Strategic Regional Leadership. We have appointed academic regional leads, with a deep understanding of each global region, to bring the granular insight into the university to support institutional responsiveness.
  • Data, Data, Data. Institutions can only support cohorts they understand. Regional age profiles can be revealing, and regional pulse surveys identify the learning and support gaps allowing action in year which is critical for one-year masters. Data sharing with local authorities also helps them to plan effectively.
  • An accommodation team working closely with our student association. We offer regular updates on accommodation prices, advise against bringing dependents until suitable accommodation is secured, and have a guarantor scheme to help international students sign leases. We have supported hotel costs for families struggling to find local accommodation and sourced temporary accommodation with a mix of flat types suitable for families. For a small number of students, a longer commute to facilitate own community support is an active choice.
  • Emergency response capacity. In the face of major economic crises that disrupt students’ ability to receive funds or pay fees, we can offer revised fee payment plans. More routinely higher deposits and sums paid prior to matriculation can modify familial pressures on students to earn their fees from part time employment. Timely financial advice via pre bookable appointments is in high demand.
  • International hardship funds. These have been around for decades to respond to life changing events like illness back home, typically accessible by individual application, and often supplemented by alumni giving. But the rise in the number of international students, the cost-of-living crisis, the new sending countries and the broader financial commitments of older students (particularly those with dependents) means rising demands on these funds. When a local food bank came under pressure, we offered support. All students have access to the Campus Pantry and breakfast club introduced in response to the cost-of-living crisis. Effective signposting of help with financial hardship, cost of living and community food support is essential for new students.
  • UK pedagogy and academic integrity. Most international students benefit from academic induction and introduction to UK pedagogy, but the offering needs to fit with their academic stage and their prior cultural, linguistic and academic tradition. We now offer more pre-start in country, online and post arrival courses fine-tuned for key geographies to ensure that students are alert to expectations around critical skills, referencing and plagiarism etc.
  • Employment. An online job shop supported by the Careers Service and listing local part-time student jobs is widely publicised and supplemented recruitment fairs attuned to local opportunities in sectors such as health and social care. We have also encountered misconceptions about professional registration requirements and associated timelines, so we are hosting pre-entry sessions highlighting the relevant entry level work opportunities for graduates
  • Meeting space. The Global Room is our drop-in meeting point for international students hosting a range of region-specific events alongside regular visa clinics, advice services and welcome events. We also have a dedicated International Advice Team who support individual students.
  • Students Association and national societies. A key ingredient in landing well is meeting others from your home country and national societies to build these local support networks. Faced with a sizable Sri Lankan cohort and no Sri Lankan society, the university provided seed funding and support to get a new society underway. Our SU officers, many former international students themselves, have led the way on creating a more inclusive culture around student activities.
  • Close links to local stakeholders. We increasingly engage with our local council at multiple levels. Travelling dependents have added additional complexity around family support particularly as the start of term. We are looking at additional creche provision to complement our existing nursery and we have developed guidance around children on campus. We have shared our Safeguarding policy and contact details for escalation of any concerns with relevant local agencies.

Race, racism and good campus relations

As well as all of that, welcoming more South Asian and African students has prompted greater reflection about how to create an inclusive campus culture. The Race Equality Charter application uncovered racism on campus and in the city, demanding we take greater ownership of the need to speak up, model allyship and challenge racism.

We have also recently become a University of Sanctuary. Again, the application process engendered self-reflection about how our campus becomes more welcoming to all students including those from a refugee and migrant background.

We commissioned a Founders Report examining how the university was endowed in the nineteenth century by individuals whose wealth could be traced back to the transatlantic slave trade and work on a more global curriculum is in progress.

And we are also investigating new training in intercultural competence for staff. In all these ways we are becoming a more global institution to the benefit of all our students.

Overall, we are on a journey to becoming a truly global university and we want all students to experience campus as a global gateway. The operational challenge is to find a sustainable growth path whilst meeting the needs of new cohorts.

Anticipated policy changes have created uncertainty in sending markets, exacerbating the pressures on institutions and their local agencies in the short term. But whether our students’ dependents are with them in UK, or in their home country, these mature, cost conscious, employability focused new students are looking to their university for support.

The response will require a complex mix of sectoral, compliance, welfare, planning and housing actions. The interventions above are just one example of the sector rising to the challenge of new cohorts to foster the joined-up student experience they deserve. And it begins with active listening to those already studying with us.

Leave a Reply